Robert Daley: Sam Davis’ death shows reform needed in long-term care |
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Robert Daley: Sam Davis’ death shows reform needed in long-term care

Former Steeler Sam Davis is shown in this 1971 photo.

Steelers Nation has been rattled by the death of Sam Davis, a former offensive lineman for the team and four-time Super Bowl champion.

After a 13-season career in the National Football League, Davis, who had been suffering from dementia and was legally blind, was recently in the care of a personal care home in McKeesport. Reports say the 75-year-old went missing the morning of Sept. 9 and was found dead 14 hours later.

The state Department of Human Services is investigating Davis’ death and, while there aren’t yet any reports on how this may have happened, the scary reality is that long-term care incidents that lead to death are more common than they should be.

Long-term care facilities, which include nursing and personal care homes and assisted living facilities, should be trusted safe havens for residents. Facilities are supposed to provide the attention, care and services a family member desperately needs and deserves. Long-term care providers take on the responsibility of ensuring safety, and they are obligated by state and federal regulations to meet specific professional standards.

Unfortunately, the industry is rife with bureaucratic problems, Medicare fraud and an inadequate number of sincere workers. It all contributes to an environment in which one in three residents experience an adverse event during a nursing home stay, according to congressional testimony by an official with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General.

Poor staffing in particular is a concern. For facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid payments, sufficient licensed nursing services are required 24 hours a day, including at least eight hours of registered nurse time. A Kaiser Health analysis, however, showed nearly 1,400 nursing homes over a three-month period either didn’t staff a registered nurse regularly, provided data the government couldn’t verify or simply didn’t provide any data.

These facilities all received a one-star rating for staffing out of a possible five from Medicare’s Nursing Home Compare, according to Kaiser Health. That’s 1 in 11 of all the nation’s nursing homes. And if a home is having trouble with staffing, it’s not a leap to say it negatively affects residents who may need extra attention.

Many people don’t realize there are different types of long-term care facilities that provide specialized services.

Skilled nursing care facilities, commonly known as nursing homes, provide round-the-clock, short-term nursing care to patients recovering from an illness, injury or surgery, as well as long-term care for those with chronic medical conditions, severe pain or permanent disabilities.

Personal care homes are designed for residents who can maintain a high level of independence but need some level of help with daily tasks. However, these homes do not provide the constant care found in skilled nursing facilities. Assisted living facilities fill in the “gap” between nursing homes and personal care homes.

While it may be surprising to many, it is personal care homes that usually care for those with dementia. When that is the case, a secure unit is necessary to ensure the safety of residents. If a person with dementia also needs skilled nursing care, then a nursing home is the correct choice.

What is critical for those with dementia in need of additional care is this: Facilities must take steps to prevent those with dementia from “going missing”; they should have memory care units, blocked-off, secure areas under constant surveillance. In Davis’s case, he was missing for at least 14 hours — an eternity for a dementia patient.

Regardless of the type of long-term care facility, one that fails to monitor its residents can be held liable if a resident is injured as a result. There are a lot of questions that still need to be answered in the case of Davis, but no resident should be left unattended for long amounts of time.

Perhaps Davis’ sad death can ignite a push for reform. I’d urge lawmakers to make this an opportunity to review care home regulations. We need more specific regulations in place when it comes to caring for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and similar cognitive impairments, no matter the type of facility they live in.

Together, let’s fix the far-too-common problems that exist in the nursing home industry. We owe it to our elders.

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