Pilot program weeds out troubled elder-care workers

WASHINGTON – About 5,000 applicants for jobs caring for the elderly have been rejected after background checks disclosed criminal records or a history of abusing patients.

The results, compiled by the Senate Aging Committee, represent lawmakers’ first efforts at evaluating a pilot program, used in seven states, that was designed to reduce cases of people preying on the elderly.

Congress approved the program in 2003. It gave the selected states the seed money – $16.4 million in all – to beef up their background checks for workers who care for the elderly, primarily nursing home staff. Some lawmakers believe the findings justify expanding the program nationally.

States participating in the pilot project were Alaska, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico and Wisconsin.

Nursing home workers in every state are subject to some type of background check. But federal investigators describe the overall effort as one filled with dangerous gaps.

For example, each state maintains a registry of nurse aides who have been found guilty by a court or who have been deemed by state officials as mistreating residents or defrauding them. However, many states only check the names on their own nurse aide registry. They don’t check the names on other states’ registries.

Most states also require criminal background checks, but the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services recently concluded that the checks were often limited in scope. Again, they were often limited to crimes in just one state.

The pilot project helped states pay for establishing and operating more extensive databases. Job applicants screened through the pilot project were required to submit fingerprints so that they could be checked at the national level for a criminal history.

Each year, ombudsmen for nursing home patients get thousands of complaints alleging abuse, neglect or exploitation. In 2005, ombudsmen got 20,622 such complaints. Of those complaints, about 5,200 alleged physical abuse and 1,200 alleged sexual abuse. Another 4,100 alleged verbal or mental abuse.

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Long-term Care Ombudsman Center: www.ltcombudsman.org.

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