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Pandemic complicates complaint investigations

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

AFR Rescue Paramedics and Albuquerque Ambulance personal wear their Personal Protective equipment while responding to a sick call at a Nursing Home.(Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Policing nursing homes and assisted living facilities during the pandemic has been difficult.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services halted on-site surveys by state agencies in March and the volunteers who work for the state’s Aging and Long-Term Care Department have been unable to enter nursing homes to respond to complaints.

In 2019, for instance, the state assigned 222 allegations of abuse to be investigated. In 2020, that number dropped to 52.

Despite the pandemic, department Secretary Katrina Hotrum-Lopez says, the department continues to receive complaints ranging from abuse to social isolation. Some, such as lack of visitation, are related to COVID-19 precautions.

“Between the Department of Health and our department, we have tried to keep on top of it,” Hotrum-Lopez said.

The department distributed tablets to nursing homes to allow residents to make complaints and communicate with family.

“We did a lot of virtual monitoring,” she said.

But the department’s “eyes and ears,” the volunteers who go into nursing homes and interview people, were reduced to doing window visits without visual inspections.

The department also relies on family members to report suspected abuse or negligence. Family visits have been severely restricted during the pandemic, and lack of contact with family and social isolation are two major categories of complaints the department is receiving.

“We were really worried because we didn’t have normal avenues for reporting,” Hotrum-Lopez said.

In August, the department began training first responders, primarily paramedics, on what to look for in elder abuse and neglect when they go into nursing homes.

Zack Quintero, the department ombudsman, said paramedics can provide another set of eyes and ears for the department.

“We are not allowing lag time in responses from the facilities,” Quintero said. “We expect a response within hours.”

Quintero said the department has told nursing homes there will not be any “surprise billing” or COVID-19 impact fees.

“We checked billings and haven’t seen anything like that yet,” Quintero said.

The department has also told nursing homes that if a resident goes to the hospital – whether the illness is related to COVID-19 or not – they must be allowed to return to the nursing home.

Hotrum-Lopez said the department has begun receiving complaints about discharges and transfers.

Each case is investigated.

“We saw those issues coming up in other states,” Quintero said.

The department has also told facilities that anytime there is a positive test, the families be notified so they know what is happening.

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