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Nursing home officials charged

| Thursday, Oct. 23, 2003, 12:00 p.m.

An Allegheny County judge on Wednesday appointed an O'Hara health care company to temporarily manage a Robinson nursing home implicated in the death of an elderly Alzheimer's patient.

Allegheny County police yesterday charged Martha Bell, 57, of West Mifflin, administrator of the Ronald Reagan Atrium I Nursing, Research and Rehabilitation Center, with involuntary manslaughter, neglect of a care-dependent person and criminal conspiracy in the Oct. 26, 2001, death of resident Mabel Taylor.

The Alzheimer's Disease Alliance of Western Pennsylvania, the nonprofit company that owns Atrium, also was charged with involuntary manslaughter and neglect of a care-dependent person, a first-degree felony. Bell heads the company's board.

Nursing director Kathleen Galati, 58, was charged with perjury, false swearing, tampering with evidence and criminal conspiracy. She is accused of trying to cover up Taylor's death and lying about it during a coroner's inquest.

Taylor, 88, was found dead on the sidewalk after being locked out of the 120-bed Campbells Run Road facility in 40-degree weather. Taylor's daughter, Jane Baczewski, declined to comment yesterday.

"I don't believe these people should be in this business," said Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., who added that no other Atrium workers would face charges. "This is a company, an entity, that has been literally reviewed from the beginning of its existence."

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O'Toole yesterday signed an order appointing Grane Healthcare as manager of the facility for 30 days, said state Health Department spokesman Richard McGarvey.

The Health Department requested that a temporary manager be appointed to care for the 48 residents in Atrium's skilled-nursing section. A separate assisted-living facility at Atrium isn't affected by the takeover, said Grane spokesman Mark Fox. Current Atrium employees -- except Galati and Bell -- will keep their jobs.

The takeover could be extended after the 30 days, or the District Attorney's Office could seek to close the facility, said Zappala spokesman Mike Manko.

This is the Health Department's second attempt to obtain a court order for a temporary manager of the facility, McGarvey said. The first was denied last year by a Commonwealth Court judge in Harrisburg who believed the facility was making good-faith efforts to correct its problems, he said.

Atrium has a long history of penalties since opening in November 1995, including $87,000 in fines, according to Health Department records. The facility also been under federal investigation for possibly double-billing Medicare and Medicaid and diverting patient-care money to augment employee salaries.

McGarvey said the company also is having trouble paying its operating costs, something that could lead to an extension of the 30-day takeover.

Bell and the facility are accused of failing to provide sufficient staff and safeguards that would have prevented Taylor from leaving the facility. According to an affidavit filed to support the charges, among the last employees to see Taylor alive were two workers hired that afternoon. They did not have proper documentation or recommendations.

Atrium and Bell oversaw a staff that allowed a security door to remain open from the inside for smoke breaks but was locked from the outside. Taylor, according to the court documents, exited from this door but could not re-enter because it was locked.

Bell urged Galati to cover up the death by dressing Taylor's body in a hospital gown and placing it under a heater to make it appear as though she didn't die outside, according to court documents.

Bell returned from a conference in Washington, D.C., to be arraigned with Galati yesterday before District Justice Carla Swearingen.

"I am confident my client will be cleared of all charges," said Bell's attorney, Alexander H. Lindsay Jr., of Butler. "She has no criminal record, she's surprised at the charges and a nervous wreck, as anyone else in her situation."

Both Galati and her attorney, William Difenderfer, declined to comment at the arraignment. The women face a preliminary hearing before Swearingen on Tuesday.

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