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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Medford case puts elder care into the spotlight

Aurelia Rios, 72, died at the Medford Multicare

Aurelia Rios, 72, died at the Medford Multicare Center for Living Nursing home in Medford. Nine current and former employees of Medford Multicare Center for Living plead not guilty, Thursday, June 5, 2014, to charges they failed to properly care of Rios. Credit: James Carbone

State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman's prosecution against a Medford nursing home is an important one. And one that likely will -- and should -- be watched across Long Island.

With the region's population rapidly aging -- and with so many young adults opting to live elsewhere -- more and more families will be making decisions about elder care.

And make no mistake: Elder care is a lucrative business that's rapidly growing to meet current and future demands in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

A decision to send a loved one into assisted living also is a decision that the family member is no longer safe on their own. That means coming to realization that it will take more than an elder, and often, more than the elder's family, to provide day-to-day care.

Aurelia Rios, 72, a grandmother from Central Islip, was admitted to the ventilator unit of the Medford Multicare Center for Living in 2012 for rehabilitation geared toward weaning her off a ventilator, according to what prosecutors said in court records.

According to a Sunday Newsday report, Rios' physician told investigators that the woman suffered from respiratory failure, obstructive sleep apnea, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, obesity and other illnesses.

In short, Rios was unable to care for herself.

At first glance, the facility appeared to have a belt-and-suspenders-like system of checks and double checks to alert staff members should residents have problems.

And that system seemed to be working on Oct. 26, 2012, when a pulse oximeter -- which measures pulse and blood oxygen -- attached to Rios finger triggered audible and visual alarms, according to court papers submitted by Schneiderman.

But no one, according to prosecutors, answered the alarms.

As a result, seven staff members of the Medford facility were arraigned June 5 on charges including patient neglect and abuse, and falsifying business records.

One of the seven is charged with criminally negligent homicide. Two other staffers are accused of covering up Rios' death; and the nursing home itself is charged with falsifying business records and violating health laws.

All have pleaded not guilty.

The defendants are, of course, entitled to the presumption of innocence.

Schneiderman is relying, in part, on surveillance camera video from the nursing home, to make the state's case.

According to prosecutors, Rios could have lived had one or more of the accused staffers answered the alarms.

For all of the technology, Rios nonetheless depended on the nursing home's staff.

"That so many workers, and the facility they worked for, failed at their most basic responsibilities is unconscionable -- and it's exactly why we are pursuing both criminal and civil charges in this case," Schneiderman said last month.

But it's not just the nursing home, or its staff, that's under the microscope.

The state Health Department is there now, too. Officials did receive complaints about the facility -- but found insufficient evidence to do anything.

Could Schneiderman's prosecution, even as the case wends its way through court, spark more attentive care at other facilities?

There are plenty of families in the region hoping so.

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