The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

June 9, 2012

Kevin Wilson, guest columnist: Nursing home disaster plans lack readiness

— I recently read an article with the headline, “Nursing homes’ plans for disaster found lacking.” The Associated Press reported that federal investigators say nursing homes are “woefully unprepared to protect frail residents in a natural disaster.” That should come as no surprise to the people of this area.

We just commemorated the first anniversary of one of the deadliest tornadoes in history, and among the dead were several residents of nursing homes.

I don’t pretend to imply that even a well-designed disaster plan could really take into account the type of devastation that hit Joplin last year. Even the best of plans could not turn back the winds that destroyed a hospital built to withstand such forces.

But the problem is that some facilities don’t have a plan in place that addresses lesser disasters. I question whether or not those that do have a plan actually practice the drills with a real world scenario in mind. It’s one thing to have a plan written down on paper in order to fulfill a check mark on an inspection list. It’s quite another to have a plan that actually works.

Many of you reading this column probably remember the tragedy at the Anderson Guest House that resulted in a new law requiring sprinklers and smoke detection systems in extended care facilities. It comes as no surprise that there were several people around the state who fought hard against such requirements — even in the wake of the deadly fire. Members of Congress had to overcome a lot of hurdles to get that law passed. Last year, the lobby against the mandates tried to push the law’s enactment out for at least two more years. Thankfully that effort was defeated, and the provisions will take effect on schedule.

I know that at one point in time, I wanted to pass legislation that would require nursing homes to have general liability insurance just for routine issues that come up from time to time. I had a lobbyist tell me to go ahead and file the bill and he would just “kill it.” Needless to say, that particular individual was banned from my office for the rest of the time that I was in the legislature. But the sad fact is that we were never able to make that legislation happen.

I’m not trying to paint a disparaging picture of the entire nursing home industry. The folks that I know who are involved in the care of some of our most vulnerable citizens truly do want to do what is right. But there are some in the industry who are more interested in profits than they are in people. Those are the ones that we need to focus on changing.

And we have to acknowledge that even those who want to do the right thing are faced with huge financial obstacles in preparing their facilities for disasters. I once visited with state officials about requiring nursing homes to have emergency power generation capability in case of outages, and I was thoroughly shocked by the cost of just that one provision.

All of us want nursing homes to be safer and better prepared, but at the same time, all of us recognize the mounting costs associated with extended care facilities. We want safety, but are we willing to pay more for that safety? Or will we just beat our chests when something tragic occurs and ask why the nursing home couldn’t have prevented it? I think we know the answer to that one.

I guess the point of this column is to raise awareness among the general public that we have a huge issue with regard to the safety of nursing homes.

I don’t have a solution to the problem. But I do know that we need to make sure that those who care for our loved ones at least have some kind of practiced plan in place in the event that a disaster or tragedy occurs. More would be better, but at least this is a place to start.

Kevin Wilson is a former state representative. He lives in Neosho.

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