Nursing Home Employees Being Fired for Reporting Neglect to the State

A nursing home worker who was fired after alerting state inspectors to the circumstances of a resident's death says that state employers must be held accountable for terminating "whistle-blowers."

"As caregivers, we're the eyes and ears of our residents' families, and we watch out for the residents," said the former nursing home employee. "That's why I think we need some stiff penalties for these companies that fire workers for reporting abuse or neglect to the state."

In June, she and other employees at the nursing home and rehabilitation center complained to the state's nursing home inspectors that the facility administrator had repeatedly threatened and verbally abused residents of the home. The home subsequently hired a new administrator but was fined $2,000 by the state.

According to state records, a few weeks passed, and then the home's owners created a new policy that prohibited front-line caregivers from contacting state inspectors about any concerns they had with the treatment of residents. The policy allegedly required the employees to report their concerns only to the company's corporate office.

On Aug. 22, a male resident was found in his bed at the  home, unresponsive and frothing at the mouth. Within seconds, the resident wasn't breathing and nursing staff couldn't find a pulse. State records indicate one worker called 911 while another initiated CPR. When one employee tried to suction the man's airway, she discovered the suctioning machine in the home's crash cart was not hooked up and there was no suction tube available. Paramedics arrived on the scene and pronounced the resident dead.

The former employee reported the matter to the State Department of Inspections and Appeals, which then investigated the incident. The department cited the home for maintaining inadequate equipment, but imposed no fines and cleared the home of eight other complaints. Before the state inspectors had completed their investigation, the home's administrators fired the employee.

According to state records the owner, administrator and director of nursing claim the employee was guilty of insubordination. They said she had coerced other workers into sharing their concerns about the incident, and had disclosed "proprietary information" to others.

Under the states law, a health care provider who fires a mandatory reporter in retaliation for whistle-blowing is committing a simple misdemeanor. But that law appears to be unenforced. Prosecutors and advocates for seniors say that to their knowledge, no one has ever been prosecuted for firing a state worker who reported abuse or neglect. The employee, like all caregivers in the state nursing homes, was a mandatory reporter obligated by law to report any suspicion of abuse or neglect. The home's policy of prohibiting such reports, according to one elder advocate, is "unreasonable, if not perhaps illegal." For more, read they story.
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Robert W. Carter, Jr. is a Virginia attorney whose law practice is dedicated to protecting the rights of the victims of nursing home and assisted living neglect and abuse in Richmond, Roanoke, Norfolk, Lynchburg, Danville, Charlottesville, and across Virginia.