Illinois failed to investigate nursing home complaints for 3 1/2 months of pandemic
Despite the concentration of COVID-19 deaths in Illinois nursing homes, more than 272 neglect and abuse complaints were ignored by the Illinois Department of Public Health.
As COVID-19 was ravaging nursing home populations, which saw over half of the state’s pandemic deaths, the Illinois Department of Public Health chose for 3 1/2 months not to investigate 272 complaints of abuse and neglect.
IDPH failed to investigate complaints between March 15 and June 30 despite laws requiring it to do so, the department admitted in a press release issued Aug. 21. The acknowledgement comes a month after IDPH fired Debra Bryars, an agency deputy director who ran the Office of Health Care Regulation.
The agency had also placed Aimee Isham, who oversaw the Bureau of Long-Term Care, on indefinite paid leave. Isham resigned Aug. 24 following the agency’s admission.
IDPH stated an independent investigation is being conducted by a former federal prosecutor and by Manatt Health Strategies to review the Bureau of Long-Term Care’s complaint process.
“Working with independent experts, we are simultaneously conducting a full and thorough review of our previous work and revamping our Bureau of Long-Term Care to better serve the people of Illinois,” said IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike in the agency’s press release.
The lapse in complaint investigations was discovered in early July by top IDPH administrators. Although the federal government had suspended some deadlines for investigating complaints in order to focus on infection control, state deadlines were not suspended and the agency was still required by law to meet those deadlines.
The most serious complaints require an investigation to begin within 24 hours, in accordance with state law. “Surveys in response to all other complaints of abuse and neglect must be conducted within seven days,” the IDPH press release stated.
The IDPH is the state’s top regulator of nursing homes and is leading the state’s response to COVID-19. Nursing homes have been especially vulnerable during the pandemic.
Illinoisans in long-term care have accounted for 55% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths as of Aug. 24, with 4,319 of 7,888 total fatalities being in nursing homes. Illinois’ death rate for nursing home residents puts it in the worst third among states and territories.
Nursing homes called on the state for help with staffing, protective gear and coordinating the response to the outbreak. But even two months into the outbreak, those in the industry complained they were not seeing results.
“We need more help. We need more coordination from the Department of Public Health. There’s no question about that. And we’ve been begging for it from the beginning,” Pat Comstock said May 13 on behalf of 300 nursing homes that belong to the Health Care Council of Illinois.
Recent reporting from the Chicago Reader highlighted Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s role in loosening nursing home liability and oversight during the pandemic. He used an executive order, and twice renewed it, to let IDPH suspend on-site annual reviews and other monitoring that fell short of abuse and neglect investigations, but which were still mandated by state law. He also gave them immunity to civil liability, allowing malpractice defense attorneys to help craft the language but excluding patient advocates. Pritzker let those orders expire June 27 after reporting by the Reader and NBC 5 Chicago.
Syracuse University College of Law professor Nina Kohn criticized the executive order: “The Governor is essentially giving the agency the freedom not to respond to even serious known problems.”
Pritzker repeatedly claimed fast action by his administration curbed COVID-19 and saved lives, but IDPH has faced criticism that it was not forceful or organized in its efforts to stop the spread in nursing homes. Advocates early in the pandemic warned the state to aggressively monitor and fight the spread in nursing homes after a Chicago Tribune investigation found a high percentage had been cited for poor infection control practices.
Little did critics realize their fears of inaction by IDPH would mean 3 1/2 months with no investigation of nursing home abuse and neglect.