WASHINGTON - Today Senate Special Committee on Aging Chairman Herb Kohl (D-WI) held a listening session to focus attention on the issue of elder abuse, a serious and often overlooked problem within America's growing aging population. Witnesses highlighted the need for, and benefits of, the Patient Safety and Abuse Prevention Act of 2007 (S. 1577). This bipartisan, bicameral bill would establish a nationwide system of background checks to prevent those with criminal histories and records of substantiated abuse from being hired to work within long-term care settings. The legislation is modeled on a successful seven-state pilot program sponsored by Chairman Kohl as part of the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003, which provided funding for states to link state and federal registries with an federal criminal background check in order to screen out potentially harmful employees.
"In every state, the pilot programs that have been established are working well. We must move to finish the job and translate these pilot programs into a comprehensive background check system that covers the entire country," said Chairman Kohl. "We need to keep predators out of our system, not just prosecute them after they have ruined people's lives."
In June, S. 1577 was introduced by Chairman Kohl and Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), along with cosponsors Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Carl Levin (D-MI), Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Bob Casey (D-PA). Congressman Tim Mahoney (D-FL) introduced a companion bill today in the U.S. House of Representatives, with Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) and Congresswoman Nancy Boyda (D-FL) as original cosponsors.
"We have a responsibility to ensure that our seniors in nursing homes and others in long-term care facilities are protected. This legislation would help create a national clearinghouse to prevent workers with criminal backgrounds and histories of abuse from working at facilities that care for country's most vulnerable. The pilot programs currently underway have already demonstrated considerable success in preventing dangerous individuals from working at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. This legislation would build on that success by providing better protection for our friends and family who are entrusted to the care of others," said Congressman Mahoney.
The pilot program, which will end this September, has already identified and excluded more than 5,000 individuals with a criminal history or record of abuse from working in long-term care facilities in these seven states. In Michigan, which established the only statewide program using pilot funding, five percent of applicants have been excluded because this comprehensive background check, which includes a fingerprint search, uncovered a serious criminal record. All of the pilot states are planning to continue their programs in some form or another, despite the end of federal funding, demonstrating the determination by these states that these coordinated state and federal background checks really do serve to protect seniors and save lives.
Testifying during the forum as the lead witness, Jennifer Coldren of New York told the story of her 90-year-old grandmother's experience with elder abuse, who was sexually assaulted at the hands of an employee with a criminal record and had been hired without receiving a background check. The perpetrator was recently sentenced to almost thirty years in prison.
The second panel featured two federal witnesses. Daniel Fridman, Senior Counsel to the Deputy Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), offered testimony regarding the expanding array of criminal and civil prosecutions of cases involving systemic elder abuse and neglect, and the role that research initiatives on elder abuse at the DOJ are beginning to play in advancing the detection, prosecution, and prevention of elder abuse. Gregory Demske, Assistant Inspector for Legal Affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG), provided an overview of the OIG's work over the last 10 years, including the multiple reviews of audit findings for specific nursing homes and other long-term care providers. Demske also described the OIG's work in crafting binding settlement agreements for nursing homes that have been found to provide extremely poor care. In several audit reports, the Inspector General has recommended that
criminal background checks be made a federal requirement for all workers in long-term care facilities.
Expert witnesses on the final panel echoed this support for S. 1577. Paul Greenwood, Deputy District Attorney of San Diego, California, is widely known as a pioneer prosecutor of elder abuse cases. His work has focused on building elder abuse units, which coordinate the expertise and efforts of local beat cops, Adult Protective Services social workers, and long-term care ombudsman, among others. Beverley Laubert, President of the National Association of Long-Term Care Ombudsman Programs, provided an overview of the gaps that occur within the current spotty network of state background check requirements. Laubert's testimony addressed the problems with inconsistent standards for background checks that now prevail in some of the pilot states and explained how these would be remedied by Chairman Kohl's national background check bill
Robert Blancato serves as National Coordinator for the Elder Justice Coalition, an umbrella organization representing over 500 groups pushing for passage of the Elder Justice Act and the Patient Safety and Abuse Prevention Act. Daniel Reingold, President and CEO of the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, New York, discussed his organization's groundbreaking work in supporting an emergency elder abuse shelter, the Weinberg House, which provides short-term housing, legal advocacy and support services to victims of elder abuse.