DOJ Forms Nursing Home Task Force, Promises Criminal and Civil Penalties for Owners and Operators

The Department of Justice this week announced the creation of a specialized task force targeting “grossly substandard care” in nursing homes, with both criminal and civil penalties on the table for owners and operators.

About 30 individual facilities across nine states are already under investigation, the DOJ revealed in announcing its new National Nursing Home Initiative.

“Millions of seniors count on nursing homes to provide them with quality care, and to treat them with dignity and respect when they are most vulnerable,” U.S. attorney general William Barr said in a statement. “Yet all too often, we have found nursing home owners or operators who put profits over patients, leading to instances of gross abuse and neglect.  This national initiative will bring to justice those owners and operators who have profited at the expense of their residents, and help to ensure residents receive the care to which they are entitled.” 

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In particular, the National Nursing Home Initiative will focus on operators with a history of abuse and neglect, with the DOJ and Barr specifically pointing to poor staffing levels, medication problems, and lapses in quality care as focus areas.

“These incidents are extremely unsettling, and I will not get too graphic,” Barr said during a Tuesday speech in Tampa. “Suffice it to say, the department has encountered nursing homes where the residents are literally being eaten away by scabies, where patients are left with bed sores down to the bone, where prescribed medication is not being provided, and patients are left screaming in pain for hours on end.”

The DOJ announcement confirms a report from last year indicating that the federal government was looking to expand its enforcement of nursing homes to include criminal penalties on top of the more common civil False Claims Act settlements that it typically reaches amid allegations of fraud.

The move also formally opens up a second front in the government’s work to regulate nursing homes, with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) continuing to tout its efforts to improve oversight through reforms of State Survey Agencies and an overhaul of the Nursing Home Compare tool, among other initiatives.

The DOJ will receive support from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Barr indicated.

“Mark my words: The initiative will bring to justice those owners and operators who put profits before patients, and it will help to ensure that the residents receive the care to which they are entitled,” Barr said in his remarks.

The attorney general also acknowledged that the task force’s targets represent a small part of the overall senior housing and care industry.

“I must point out that none of this is an indictment of the assisted-living industry as a whole. There are many terrific facilities out there being managed by wonderful people with dedicated staff,” he said. “To be sure, most of them are great, delivering the care that their residents need and deserve. Unfortunately, there are some really bad apples who are abusing seniors, and we are set on figuring out exactly who they are, and putting an end to their cruelty.”

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