The legislature's unwillingness to require that coroners be notified of deaths in nursing homes is chilling.
Opposition from the nursing home industry and the potential costs to the state are the reasons cited by Rep. Tom Burch, chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee, for not moving his bill that, among other things, would require nursing homes to assign a staff member to notify the local coroner when a patient dies.
We always assumed that, in most cases, nursing home residents die from the natural effects of aging or illness, and their deaths would be routine matters for coroners to evaluate.
Only when something was out of the ordinary — when there was blood or bruising, for example, or evidence of choking on food or, as at a Calvert City nursing home, a patient was found on the floor with her head wedged between a mattress and bed rail — would an in-depth investigation or autopsy be required.
Such cases, we assumed, were rare. And yet Tracey Corey, the state's chief medical examiner, estimates that, if even 10 percent of the additional cases generated by the proposed law were turned over to her for further evaluation, her office would need three more doctors and more support staff and equipment.
OK, let's assume she's correct. Is the expense a valid reason for not investigating nursing home deaths? Is Kentucky so broke, financially and morally, we can't follow up on suspicious deaths of helpless patients? That's a poor excuse, which makes us suspect the real obstacle is the nursing home industry.
Burch said he tried to compromise with industry leaders with no success. "All that I had when they got through compromising was the title (of the bill) and my name on it."
Many nursing homes are owned by for-profit, investor-owned corporations. Why, Kentuckians should ask themselves, are they so resistant to having a set of outside eyes around immediately after a patient dies?
Do we not want to know? Do we not care?
In their investigations of Kentucky nursing homes, Herald-Leader reporters discovered that, in some instances, not even families are fully informed of the circumstances of their loved ones' deaths. The family of the woman who died in the Calvert City nursing home had to ferret out the details for itself.
When Arkansas enacted a law requiring nursing homes to report deaths to county coroners, criminal prosecutions did not increase, but the number of nursing homes being fined or shut down did, which probably explains why the industry opposes this extra layer of accountability — and why it's needed.
Another House bill creating a registry of persons charged with adult abuse and barring their employment by nursing homes has been watered down "to begin to prepare to implement" a registry.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, Sen. Tom Buford hasn't been able to get a hearing for his bill requiring criminal background checks on all nursing home employees.
All in all, a disturbing showing by this legislature that reinforces nursing home reform advocate Bernie Vonderheide's message that what's needed is "some real leadership ... not just from advocates, but from legislators."