(The Center Square) – The Illinois Department of Public Health has hired a former U.S. Attorney to review the department’s failure to investigate complaints of abuse and neglect in long-term care facilities for more than three months during the pandemic, but some lawmakers want public hearings on the issue.
Last month, Deputy State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Chuck Miller said he and others couldn’t properly advocate for the residents they represent because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“I’ll just say our program had some difficulties at the beginning [of the pandemic] because we’re not the regulators,” Miller said.
As an ombudsman, Miller and others who are part of the program through the Illinois Department on Aging, advocate for long-term care residents in facilities and at home on a range of issues from quality of care to more serious things.
“Our residents can make a complaint to the department of public health and then they will send in the surveyors,” Miller said.
Miller made his comments after a report last month from Chicago Public Radio that revealed several Pritzker administration officials in charge of long-term care facility oversight left their posts. He also said it was difficult to advocate for long-term care residents with restrictions in place.
State Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, said IDPH sends inspectors to long-term care facilities throughout the state.
“But we know that they’re not going to catch every case and that’s why there is this ability for a resident or a family member to file a complaint to prompt an investigation,” Demmer said.
On Friday, the department said for more than 15 weeks during the COVID-19 shutdown, it’s Bureau of Long-Term Care wasn’t properly processing or investigating complaints.
“Surveys must be conducted within 24 hours for the most serious complaints of abuse and neglect pursuant to Illinois law; surveys in response to all other complaints of abuse and neglect must be conducted within seven days,” the department said in a statement on Friday. “Illinois law that requires abuse and neglect complaints to be reviewed within certain timeframes was not suspended and IDPH personnel did not complete reviews of allegations of abuse and neglect in a timely manner between approximately March 15 and June 30.”
The statement said the department has now investigated 272 allegations of abuse and neglect from that period and substantiated the factual circumstances of 17 of those complaints.
“To ensure that the findings were thorough and accurate, IDPH has hired former U.S. Attorney Cox to conduct a thorough review of the complaints that IDPH found to be unsubstantiated and determine if any next regulatory or legal steps are warranted in response to those complaints,” the department said.
The governor’s office and the IDPH did not respond to a request for details on such cases.
The Long-term Care Annual Report to the Illinois General Assembly published in July 2019 included a breakdown of such cases for that year. There were a total of 81 administrative findings. Most of the findings (56) involved abuse. Eleven cases of financial exploitation were found in 2019, and seven each of neglect and misappropriation of property.
Demmer said public hearings are needed.
“They should be honest about the fact, and they were, that they dropped the ball on this, they’re trying to take some corrective steps,” Demmer said. “I think it will be really good to have those discussions in public and talk about what we can do and some of the lessons learned to make sure that if we find ourselves in this circumstance like this again that we can make good on the investigation portion.”
Messages seeking comment from chairpersons for the Senate and House Human Services Committees were not immediately returned.