WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI), Chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, and Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) today were joined by original cosponsors Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Carl Levin (D-MI), and Hillary Clinton (D-NY) in introducing the Patient Safety and Abuse Prevention Act of 2007 (S.1577). The bill would prevent those with criminal histories from working within long-term care settings by establishing a nationwide system of background checks. This new system would coordinate abuse and neglect registries with state law enforcement registries, and also add a federal component to the background check by cross-referencing potential employees with the FBI's national database of criminal history records. Under the disorganized, patchwork system of background checks that exists today, employers trying to hire caregivers cannot always determine which applicants have records of abuse or a history of committing violent crimes.
As a result, predators are sometimes hired to take care of our most vulnerable citizens, working in situations where they can cause enormous harm.
"If enacted, this legislation could help to prevent many of the tragic tales of physical and financial elder abuse that we hear about from our constituents and read about in our local newspapers," said Chairman Kohl. "This bill would close gaping loopholes in our current system of background checks by expanding nationwide a pilot program that has already proven successful in many states."
"We have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable from abuse by those hired to care for them. Those who have a propensity to prey on the elderly, the chronically ill and the disabled must be restricted from working with these people," Senator Domenici said. "The pilot programs implemented in New Mexico and other states have shown that background checks can help ensure that those in long-term care are not exposed to people who would do them harm. I am pleased to co-sponsor this bill which will strengthen this program and help protect the most susceptible populations."
"I am proud to stand with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to introduce legislation that will establish stronger safety measures to protect our loved ones living under the care of others," said Senator McCaskill. "While the vast majority of these employees do admirable and invaluable work, we must make sure that those who do not have the patient's best interests in mind are being kept out of these facilities."
"Protecting the health and safety of our most vulnerable citizens should be a top priority," said Senator Stabenow. "I am proud that much of this legislation is modeled after a successful Michigan pilot program and working together we can expand on its progress."
"Combating elder abuse should be a national priority, and background checks can be an important tool in preventing the neglect and exploitation of the most vulnerable among us," Senator Lincoln said.
"We have a critical responsibility to ensure the safety of our most vulnerable citizens," Senator Levin said. "By permitting employers to perform background checks on nursing home employees and applicants, we can help to cut down on abuse in facilities for disabled and elderly people. Michigan is fortunate to have been the site of a pilot program that has proven very successful, and we are hoping to be able to expand this program across the country."
"As the baby boomers begin to reach retirement, it becomes increasingly important to have federal policies that promote positive aging and protect the well-being of our nations' seniors. That's why I am pleased to support the "Patient Safety and Abuse Prevention Act of 2007," which will expand and strengthen states' abilities to safeguard against abuse and neglect in long-term care facilities. While it's important to find ways to help seniors remain in their homes, we must also ensure that all older Americans, wherever they may live, are able to enjoy their golden years in safe and nurturing environments," said Senator Clinton.
Under the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 (MMA), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has been conducting a pilot program in seven states to implement efficient, equitable systems that cost-effectively screen out certain applicants for employment in long-term care facilities. Applicants excluded are those whose backgrounds include findings of substantiated abuse and/or a serious criminal history. Forty-one states already require a criminal background check of some variety, mostly at the state level. The pilot states have integrated their systems to coordinate these checks in a single streamlined process and have added a federal background check through the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System.
The results from the pilot programs are thus far very impressive. Among the seven states, Michigan boasts the only statewide system and also the most thorough data in terms of the system's results. In the first year of operation, Michigan excluded more than 3,000 people with records of abuse or a disqualifying criminal history. As of April 30, 2007, 625 of these were excluded through a fingerprint check. Twenty-five percent of these exclusions were identified through an FBI check only, a fact that state officials believe indicates that these individuals committed crimes in other states, or have been avoiding prosecution within the state. This statistic reinforces the need for the Patient Safety and Abuse Prevention Act of 2007, which includes the compulsory FBI check.
In a letter, the AARP conveyed its support for the bill, stating, "Individuals with criminal convictions or histories of abuse can pose a significant risk to persons receiving long-term care... This bill would make significant strides in protecting individuals across the country receiving long-term care services." The letter also touched on the importance of eliminating the loopholes present in today's haphazard system of background checks, which vary state to state: "A system of national criminal background checks is especially critical, given the mobility of today's workers, the turnover in the long-term care workforce, and the fact that it is not unusual for individuals to work in multiple states."
By expanding this model nationwide, the resulting system would greatly enhance the probability of identifying individuals with criminal backgrounds who can now easily escape detection. Currently, the MMA pilot program is scheduled to end this September.
This bill is supported by the Elder Justice Coalition, the National Citizen's Coalition for Nursing Home Reform, the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, AARP and many other organizations dedicated to protecting our nation's vulnerable citizens.