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Put an end to wrongful elder evictions

Bill Lueders
Progressive Perspectives (TNS)
FILE - In this Jan. 8, 2021, file photo, Jean Allen, 96, left, receives the first shot of the Pfizer vaccination for COVID-19, from a Walgreens Pharmacist, right, at Queen Anne Healthcare, a skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility in Seattle. Allen survived catching COVID-19 before she was vaccinated, during a 2020 outbreak of COVID-19 that killed more than a dozen residents and two staff members. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

In late October, my 97-year-old mother was evicted from the senior care facility in New Berlin, Wisconsin, where she had lived for a decade. It happened from one day to the next, in an apparent violation of state law. My family had to scramble to find her a new place to live.

Like the federal law governing nursing homes nationwide, Wisconsin law requires providers including the Regency, where my mother lived, to give residents 30 days advance notice before an involuntary discharge. We received no such notice and, as I learned in researching an article on this subject, most people evicted from nursing homes and other long-term care facilities don’t.

“It is rare for a resident to ever get 30 days’ notice,” Tony Chicotel, a staff attorney for California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, told me. That’s because doing so involves informing residents of their right to appeal, which facilities don’t want because residents who do appeal usually win.

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As Chicotel put it, “The benefits of breaking the law are greater than the cost of breaking the law. So, consequently, you get a lot of law-breaking.” (The article can be found at progressive.org/magazine/evictingelderly-lueders or as a downloadable PDF at progressive.org/evicting.)

What happened to my mother, it turns out, happens to elderly people in this country all the time.

On Nov. 18, the day after we moved our mom into a new residence, the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a 40-page report on “facility-initiated discharges.” It noted that these have for years been the single most frequent complaint received by the federal Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, which works to resolve problems for individuals living in these facilities.

According to the report, “police found one resident on the streets after a nursing home discharged him to an unlicensed boarding house without notifying his family.” An attorney with the Michigan Elder Justice Initiative told me her group has seen cases in which elderly residents were approved for discharges to a homeless shelter and to a house that had burned down. Often residents are barred from returning after being sent outside the facility for medical reasons, as happened with my mom.

Sadly, state and federal laws requiring advance notice and imposing certain rules on “facility-initiated discharges” have been allowed to atrophy into irrelevance, because they are so seldom enforced. And even then, the penalties are so nominal that providers are willing to accept them as a cost of doing business.

In my mom’s case, I filed a grievance with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, contesting the stated reasons for my mom’s eviction. I noted that “there is a reason, and a good one at that,” for requiring 30 days advance notice. “It’s to prevent providers from putting families in the predicament that (the facility) has put us.”

The state investigated, and, in mid-November, a division supervisor assured me that there “absolutely” would be an enforcement action taken by the state. “In this case, they’ll be put on notice that a violation occurred,” I was told. “They’ll be charged fines.”

As of this writing, no enforcement action has been announced.

This is an issue that regulators on the state and federal level need to take more seriously. They should be delivering swift consequences to violators, including the “significant financial penalties” Chicotel says are needed when facilities break the law.

Our seniors deserve better than to be tossed out of their homes because a provider has decided they have become too much work.

— Bill Lueders is editor of The Progressive. This column was produced for the magazine’s “Progressive Perspectives” project and distributed by Tribune News Service.