Questions are raised on homes' operation 5 elderly residents die but company cleared in 3 cases

1 pending


A pioneering Virginia company that plans to open a home for the elderly in Columbia's Hickory Ridge Village has been dogged by questions about several incidents involving residents -- including five deaths -- at facilities it operates in Maryland and Virginia.

Sunrise Assisted Living of Fairfax, which goes before the Howard County Planning Board with site plans tomorrow, has been cleared of culpability in all but two of those deaths, say authorities in both states.

However, in one of those cases, officials found that the company in January failed to provide proper first aid to the resident of a Sunrise home in Arlington, Va., who passed out while eating and who was left for dead in her room.

The woman later died in the hospital.

The other case, still under investigation by Virginia authorities, involved a man who fell to his death this month from a third-story window of a Sunrise home in Falls Church.

Meanwhile, the company is correcting fire and building code violations at another Virginia home.

And regulators from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene last November found "voluminous" lapses in care of residents at a Sunrise complex in Montgomery County.

Sunrise homes give elderly residents assistance with such daily chores as eating, dressing and bathing in Victorian-style homes.

The company defends its assisted living facilities as a much-needed alternative to nursing homes, one that provides residents with a more dignified and autonomous atmosphere.

And company officials say that accidental deaths and other reported incidents should be put into the context of a company that has cared for 20,000 residents in 14 years.

"Anybody and everybody in the field that we are in deals with the same issues," said Dr. Kirtland Peterson, chief operating officer of Sunrise. "The possibility for human error is there."

The firm, started in 1980, has 39 homes on the East Coast and plans to build 36 more within three years, officials say.

Unlike nursing homes, there are no doctors on staff, and residents are allowed a higher degree of privacy.

In Columbia, Sunrise plans to build a three-story home by the end of next year with 79 units and a capacity of 90 residents on Freetown Road on the east side of the Hickory Ridge Village Center.

The final plans for the 2.7-acre site are likely to be approved tomorrow by the planning board, which deals with issues such as parking, landscaping and lot layout.

The plans have yet to draw much community interest.

At a recent village board meeting, the company discussed its proposal before a handful of residents.

However, the company is continuing to deal with regulators in connection with incidents at some of its other homes.

Fairfax County authorities have sued Sunrise in Fairfax County Circuit Court to correct building and fire code violations discovered by state licensing officials in May.

During an inspection Friday, the company was able to satisfy Virginia authorities that it had complied with codes prohibiting it from housing more than five people who would need assistance to escape from a fire.

Maryland's investigation came in the wake of a resident's death in one of Sunrise's homes in Kensington, said Gene Heisler, deputy director of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's Licensing and Certification Administration.

The patient died after the home's staff failed to pass along critical laboratory results to the resident's doctor, which resulted in continued administration of a drug the resident didn't need, according to a published report.

Mr. Heisler said regulators found that staff members had made errors in giving medicine to patients and failed to notify doctors of significant changes in residents' conditions.

But "we could not say conclusively that there was a cause-and-effect relationship" between staff care and the death, said.

Since then, "we've been back and they've essentially corrected the problems," he said.

There have been no problems reported at Maryland's other three Sunrise facilities, in Gaithersburg, Frederick and Towson, said Mr. Heisler.

Dr. Peterson did not deny that there have been problems caused by human error at some of Sunrise's facilities, or that there have been accidental deaths.

He said residents must accept what it calls "managed risk" -- a lower level of supervision -- to have greater autonomy and a better quality of life.

The alternative for some might include being sedated and strapped into a wheelchair all day, he added.

"Even a nursing home cannot guarantee 100 percent safety," he said, though nursing homes provide around-the-clock medical supervision.

A Sunrise facility "is not a nursing home," he said. "You are allowed to close your door."

Sunrise facilities have a registered nurse in each building, he said, and residents and their families understand that they and their private doctors are primarily responsible for medical care.

In addition, the company offers assisted living that is more affordable than nursing home care.

While a nursing home's fees can range from $150 to $250 a day, assisted living generally costs between $60 and $110, Dr. Peterson said.

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