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Bill would require coroner notification in nursing home deaths

Augusta Chronicle - 2/9/2020

Feb. 9--Caleb Connor says he has seen horrific cases of elderly abuse and neglect in his legal career, as he and his firm specialize in representing nursing home patients and their families -- including a case in which the cause of death was listed by the nursing home director as heart failure when the victim had a bedsore big enough to push a fist into it.

But a bill pending before the General Assembly this year would reverse a law from 1996 that gives nursing home personnel the ability to sign death certificates. The bill would require long-term care facilities to notify the county coroner's office when there are deaths.

"Many nursing home residents die of natural causes. (But) sadly, in our state and across the country, we have seen terrible cases of what looks like abuse or neglect of nursing home residents," said Melanie McNeil, Georgia's long-term care ombudsman.

A coroner's investigation could exonerate nursing home staff, and identify for prosecution those who neglect and abuse patients, McNeil said.

"If the perpetrator is not prosecuted, he or she is free to continue to abuse and neglect nursing home residents," she said.

Connor called the measure, House Bill 262, "a step in the right direction."

Even if a coroner just spot checks, having an independent professional evaluate a body to confirm cause of death could have a huge impact and serve as a deterrent to abuse and neglect, said Connor, whose firm has offices in Augusta and Aiken County.

Richmond County Coroner Mark Bowen has pushed for the bill's passage since the last session of the General Assembly. He's hopeful it will pass this year and become law.

Although it would increase a coroner's workload, several coroners in Georgia also support the bill, said Bowen, who is president of the Georgia Coroners Association. There are many good nursing homes providing quality care in Georgia, but coroners could catch the cases that are falling between the cracks, he said.

Last April, the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services reported there are an average of 7,100 nursing home patients who suffer a serious adverse health event each year. More than 100,000 more patients suffer less serious adverse events. More than half of those life-threatening and endangering events could have been prevented.

William Loomer, who leads the local Crimes Against the Vulnerable and Elderly task force, said his team is seeing an increase in nursing home reports of possible neglect and abuse.

Though most of the homes in CAVE's jurisdiction provide great care, "self-regulation will always be a concern," Loomer said.

"Nursing homes often conduct their own in-house investigations of potentially criminal allegations, and law enforcement is never notified," Loomer said. "The success of this bill would not only ensure that an impartial investigation of every nursing home death is conducted by the coroner, but I believe it would increase public confidence in the nursing home's practices in the long run."

The Georgia Health Care Association and Georgia Center for Assisted Living is on top of the bill, said Devon Barill, the communications director for the organization of long-term assisted living facilities.

"GHCA is aware of HB 262 and has had substantive conversations with the GBI and Georgia Coroners Association regarding reporting requirements and how they may be further defined and clarified," she said. "We will continue to remain engaged with all parties on this issue."

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