Nursing home regulation

Kentucky takes a plodding, haphazard approach to investigating and prosecuting abuse and neglect in nursing homes.

Police and coroners are rarely notified when suspicious injuries or deaths occur. Nursing homes sometimes hide the truth from the patient's family.

Because of the sluggish flow of information, it can take months for prosecutors to learn of possible crimes. Physical evidence is long gone by then, and witnesses' recollections have grown cold. It's no wonder crimes against nursing home residents are seldom prosecuted.

Unless we as a society are willing to accept abuse and neglect as the inevitable consequence of aging or infirmity, Kentucky must do better.

The General Assembly has repeatedly failed to act on legislation that would improve the quality of care by requiring nursing homes to employ more staff to care for patients.

Smaller patient-loads would go a long way toward preventing neglect and abuse. Nursing home aides are not well paid or well trained for their demanding jobs.

The for-profit, investor-owned corporations that dominate the nursing home industry can hold down costs by hiring as few caregivers and paying them as little as possible.

The industry also has a lot of clout in Frankfort and Washington and uses it to block legislation that would cut into its profits.

Nursing homes and nursing home chains do pay sometimes hefty fines for hurting patients and violating care standards. Such fines are racked up as a cost of doing business.

In the absence of higher standards and better staffing, stronger accountability is needed.

Without it, there will be more outrages such as those detailed Sunday and Monday by Herald-Leader reporters Beth Musgrave and Valarie Honeycutt Spears, including:

■ Aden Owens, a 61-year-old construction worker who was disabled on the job and then repeatedly injured at his Somerset nursing home. The staff was caught on videotape mistreating him. The nursing home's administrator lost his license for five years but there was no criminal prosecution.

■ The resident of a Prestonsburg nursing home who clutched his legs in pain and yelled "Oh God" for days before a doctor was called and discovered that both legs were broken.

■ The resident of an Erlanger nursing home who developed sepsis when bedsores went unmonitored.

■ Ruby Ethel Goode, whose family and doctor were not told by officials at her Calvert City nursing home that, when she died, her head was wedged between her bed rail and mattress.

We're not advocating a witch hunt against overworked, underpaid nursing home personnel.

But deaths in nursing homes should at least merit as much attention from coroners as other deaths. The state must bring much sharper clarity and more resources to the investigation and prosecution of crimes in nursing homes.

The point of stronger accountability would be not to punish but to prevent the mistreatment of those among us who are voiceless and vulnerable.