Disclosure of state reports to victims proposed in bill

Woman says she had to sue to find source of hepatitis

March 04, 2000|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

A woman who nearly died from hepatitis contracted at a Baltimore County fast-food restaurant told a legislative committee yesterday that she had to sue state health officials to force them to disclose the results of their investigation of her case.

Susan M. Miller, 31, of Lutherville told the Senate Finance Committee that it took five months of hospitalization for her to recover from the disease. More than a year after that, the state Court of Special Appeals forced the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to tell her the name of the restaurant where she and 30 other people were infected.

Miller, who became ill about six weeks after dining out -- the incubation period for hepatitis -- was one of several witnesses to testify in favor of a bill that would require state health officials to notify people harmed by companies the state licenses and regulates.

Under the bill, health officials would have to release the information on request and make sure victims such as Miller were notified.

Also testifying was former Maryland resident Gloria Cruz, who said state health officials ignored her complaints about the poor care she said her grandmother received in a Parkville nursing home.

She said state inspectors later found that her mother had not been properly treated but never informed her of this. The health department should notify families of patients who get poor or substandard care, she said.

Miller, who testified with her attorney, Maureen Murphy of Catonsville, said she discovered she had been infected with hepatitis about two years ago. Eventually, she testified, she learned that she was one of many people infected after eating at the northern Baltimore County restaurant, which she did not identify.

At one point, Miller said, doctors told her they couldn't be sure she would recover.

Miller said that when she asked state and county health officials for the results of their investigation, including the restaurant's name, they refused to release them, saying the information was confidential.

Miller said she wanted the information to sue to recover the $25,000 in medical bills stemming from her illness.

Murphy said that state health officials claimed releasing the information would end the cooperative relationship between the state and the companies it regulates. She said the Court of Special Appeals rejected that argument and concluded the information was public.

Cruz, who now lives in Delaware, told legislators her grandmother, Elsie Wagner, died about a week after being released from the Cromwell Center nursing home. Cruz said she frequently witnessed poor patient care at the home and showed pictures of bruises her grandmother suffered.

Carol Benner, director of the Office of Health Care Quality, testified that she had already apologized to Cruz for the way the department had handled the case. "Frankly, I'm surprised to hear this come up again," said Benner. "I thought we had moved on."

Benner and committee Chairman Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, noted that the panel will hear testimony next week on a package of bills to increase staffing in nursing homes, provide additional funding and strengthen penalties for homes with multiple violations. Bromwell said the package carries a price tag estimated at $98 million.

Rob Hendrickson, representing the Maryland Nurses Association, noted that a disclosure bill was filed last year, but failed to win approval. He said the proposed nursing home package does not address the issue.

Hendrickson noted that a private organization, rather than the state or federal government, is in the process of making detailed statewide nursing home data available free on the Internet.

Called Member of the Family, the Web site provides copies of state inspection reports. The service also shows which nursing homes have been cited for serious problems. Homes with the most serious deficiencies are listed in red, Hendrickson said.

In addition to helping families select a nursing home, Member of the Family will prepare individualized reports on patients in a nursing home. Those reports, which will be gathered from data required under state and federal regulations, will show whether a patient's condition has improved or worsened since admission.

If families have complaints about a nursing home, the Internet site provides a system to report those complaints, he said. He said the service was offered to the state, "but they were not interested."

The site can be accessed at www.memberofthefamily.net.

The company recently won a contract with the regional office of the U.S. Veterans Administration, which will use the data to place veterans in nursing homes and monitor their care.

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