National Background Checks Could Prevent Nursing Home Assaults

A nursing home should be a safe environment where a patient can enjoy the remainder of their life while receiving necessary medical treatment. Unfortunately, some criminals exploit these safe havens looking for vulnerable victims. This behavior is especially offensive when the crime is physical or sexual abuse.

A shocking number of criminals work in nursing homes. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that 92 percent of the 260 nursing homes it evaluated hired at least one convicted criminal. Half of those nursing homes had five or more employees with criminal backgrounds.

Only 10 states require nationwide background checks of nursing home employees. Massachusetts is not one of those states. But careless hiring of employees who pose undue dangers to residents can still constitute a form of nursing home abuse or neglect.

Serious Consequences

Several incidents in Pittsfield, Massachusetts nursing homes illustrate the problem. The Hillcrest Commons Nursing Rehabilitation Center hired certified nursing assistant (CNA) Jerald H. Sullivan in 2009 after a Massachusetts-only background check. In January 2011, another employee caught Sullivan raping an elderly female patient. Had Hillcrest conducted a nationwide background check it would have discovered Sullivan’s criminal past in Vermont.

At the Springside of Pittsfield nursing home, two former female employees were convicted of physically assaulting patients and another employee’s assault case is pending. At least one of those three former employees had a criminal record but the nursing home claims ignorance at the time of hiring.

More Should Be Done

The commonwealth of Massachusetts only requires nursing homes to conduct in-state background checks. The new national health care law set to take effect in 2014 proposes a national background check system. However, that system is currently optional for states. Participating states must put forth money to receive federal matching funds for the program. Massachusetts has not opted into this pilot program.

Nevertheless, several advocacy groups, such as the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care and the Massachusetts Advocates for Nursing Care Reform, have long pushed for Massachusetts to require national background checks for fear of criminals moving from state to state to escape their sordid pasts. Though national background checks are not foolproof, they provide some level of security.

Making Safety a Priority

Protecting patients from criminals preying on vulnerable victims should be a top priority for Massachusetts. Patient safety is worth the extra money and effort.

If you suspect a loved one has been abused at the hands of nursing home staff, contact an experienced attorney to discuss the situation and your legal options.