When I started my career as a civil rights attorney more than 32 years ago, my first job involved elder advocacy. I quickly learned that the most vulnerable elders - those who live in nursing homes - were often subjected to abuse and neglect, shortening their lives and making them miserable.
As if navigating Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were not challenges enough.
By the early 1990s, the federal Older Americans Act was amended by Congress, requiring all states to have legal counsel for their ombudsman programs. Shortly thereafter, I became the first attorney to hold this position in Wisconsin. My charge was to help elders and people with disabilities assert their rights to be free from abuse and neglect in long-term-care facilities.
Along with other advocates, I worked to protect vulnerable elders and people with disabilities, and pushed to improve regulatory standards and enforcement. I learned that regulatory bodies mainly focus on compliance, leaving victims of abuse and neglect without compensation for the harm they suffered.
When I started a private practice representing victims of abuse and neglect, it became clear that obtaining monetary damages for these victims was vitally important to them and their families. It also served to further quality care, since neither nursing homes nor their insurers enjoyed making large payouts to victims of abuse and neglect.
But in the age of Donald Trump, even vulnerable elders are under attack. The nursing home industry, with the president’s support, has proposed lifting an Obama-era rule that prohibits nursing homes from insisting that all disputes get resolved by arbitration. If this change goes through, a critical piece of private enforcement to protect vulnerable people who live in institutions will be neutered.
Remarkably, these proposed reduction of nursing home residents’ rights fly in the face of ongoing abuse and neglect of residents of long-term-care facilities. A recent report found that more than one-quarter of serious nursing home abuse incidents are not reported to the police, as required. Shockingly, all of these incidents involved injuries so severe as to require emergency room care.
Elders also face perils due to natural disasters caused by climate change. Approximately 71 percent of Hurricane Katrina victims were older than 60. In response, the Center for Disease Control urged disaster planners to take steps to protect vulnerable older adults.
Yet when Hurricane Irma hit Florida, knocking out power for much of the state, nine residents of a nursing home died of heat-related causes. Their facility hadn’t invested in emergency power generators. This disaster caused Florida Gov. Rick Scott to announce new rules requiring all nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to have sufficient generator capacity to keep their facilities and residents cool for 96 hours in case of a power outage.
Yet even the best planning and new protective rules will not protect every vulnerable nursing home resident. That means victims must have recourse to the courts to obtain compensation and to hold long-term-care facilities accountable.
Advocates for these vulnerable residents of long term care facilities must keep up the fight to resist removal of their legal protections.
Jeff Spitzer-Resnick is a civil rights attorney who runs Systems Change Consulting in Madison, Wis. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project.