Legal cover-up

March 11, 2003

In articles published late last year, The Sun's Walter F. Roche Jr. reported the horrific tale of an 89-year-old woman who was accidentally fed to death in a Baltimore nursing home.

Eight times the amount of liquid food her doctor ordered was pumped into her stomach through a tube. She groaned in pain for hours before the food finally exploded from her body. She was then left to languish for hours more before being taken to the hospital where she was pronounced dead.

The woman was not identified in Mr. Roche's articles nor in the state nursing home inspection report that detailed the incident. But the woman's grandson, who thought she died from natural causes, happened to read the newspaper and noticed that many of the details fit his grandmother's case.

Thus only by chance did he learn her true fate. No law requires that nursing home patients or their families be told when patients are harmed or mistreated by staff.

Baltimore Sen. George W. Della Jr. has been trying for years to require state officials to make such notifications. But industry lobbyists, fearing a flood of lawsuits, have so far succeeded in blocking him.

The General Assembly should be ashamed of itself. The lawmakers seem to have forgotten whose interest they are charged to protect.

Over the years, Senator Della has pared back the scope of his bill in hopes of reducing the opposition; it once also covered hospitals and restaurants. The proposal scheduled for a hearing Thursday before the Senate Finance Committee applies only to nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and won the support last year of the state health inspectors charged with enforcing it.

Health inspectors visit these facilities every year or so to determine whether they are meeting the standards of care required by state and federal law. Survey reports are issued detailing any violations found, but affected patients are never identified in these reports to protect their privacy.

Senator Della's bill would require that in instances where inspectors find care violations adversely affecting a specific patient, the state agency must inform the patient or his or her legal representative, usually a relative.

Granted, such notification could become grist for trial lawyers. That is no justification, however, for withholding vital information from patients and their families.

Horrors such as the feeding-tube killing may be rare. But as long as the system encourages cover-ups, it's impossible to know.

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