Nursing home law lauded Official says more on staffs had criminal records before '96

Mandatory checks urged

September 15, 1998|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

A report suggesting that as much as 5 percent of Maryland nursing home workers have criminal records was characterized as good news yesterday by a state health official, who said the number reflects a substantial improvement over the past two years.

As much as 20 percent of nursing home workers may have had criminal histories before passage of a bill in 1996 that required state criminal background checks, said Carol Benner, director of licensing and certification for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"If the figures in the report are true, maybe the 1996 law has worked," Benner said yesterday.

The audit, conducted by the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, detailed a random survey of 1,000 employees of eight unidentified Maryland nursing homes between July 1996 and January 1998.

Of 51 employees with criminal records identified at the eight nursing homes, some had criminal histories in other states. In other cases, convictions were not reflected in state court records.

State health officials said they had not been contacted about the report and did not know whether the Inspector General's office would release names of the employees to them. An official at the office did not know yesterday whether the agency plans to disclose the names.

Among the report's recommendations: mandatory federal criminal checks for all nursing home workers, and establishment of a national registry of people convicted of abuse to simplify the checking process.

"There is no nationwide assurance that nursing home staff who could place elderly residents at risk are systematically identified and excluded from employment," said Thomas D. Roslewicz, deputy inspector general. Roslewicz presented the report at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging in Washington.

Benner said she expects the report to rekindle a bill in the state legislature that fizzled earlier this year: It would have required out-of-state criminal checks in addition to checks of Maryland court records.

"Right now, there's nothing to protect residents if a worker runs into problems in one state and then goes to another," she said. "We're hopeful this requirement will eventually go through."

According to the report: One Maryland employee's record showed three convictions for distributing heroin in Kentucky, Minnesota and Virginia. Another had a record of assault in New Hampshire and theft in Maine. A third had four convictions in the District of Columbia for possessing and distributing PCP and marijuana.

Nursing home owners in Maryland opposed the proposal for more stringent checks earlier this year because it would require them to use the FBI for national criminal checks. That agency has a backlog of several months for such requests.

"It made it impractical," said Mark Woodard, of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland, which represents about 150 of the more than 200 nursing homes in Maryland. "We're under regulatory requirements to have certain staffing levels in nursing facilities. It would have made it very difficult to hire people."

Nursing home owners also objected to the cost of federal background checks -- an estimated $900,000 to conduct additional checks on approximately 26,000 applicants a year. That would nearly double the current cost, he said.

Despite that concern, Woodard said, the cost factor wasn't the primary point. The fact that no simple registry existed presented a bigger problem, he said.

State legislators plan to reintroduce the expanded checking proposal in the coming session.

"The only way you're really going to weed out these bad characters is to have state and federal background checks," said Del. Michael R. Gordon, a Montgomery County Democrat who co-sponsored the unsuccessful legislation last session. "I think this report will have a positive impact, and we're going to keep hammering away at it until we get it done."

Pub Date: 9/15/98

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