Court Prohibits California Health Department from Hiding Nursing Home Citations

According to a recent report from CBS Sacramento, a California court made clear that “health officials may no longer hide from public view all the relevant details about citations issued to hospitals and nursing homes.” To be sure, the California Supreme court unanimously decided that “only the names of patients may be omitted when the California Department of Public health releases records describing the sanctions it imposed on long-term care facilities for providing improper care or endangering clients.”

Will this decision help to address issues of nursing home abuse and elder neglect across the state?

Background of the Center for Investigative Reporting Case

law-hammerThe recent case originated with the Center for Investigative Reporting after one of the organization’s investigators—who had been looking into patient abuse allegations at various state-run facilities—asked to take a look at the facilities’ citations as part of the California Public Records Act. While the California Department Health complied with the request in some form, it provided very little information that could be of use to someone who wants to determine in depth the reasons for a facility’s citation history.

To be sure, the investigator received “four years’ worth of heavily excised documents that listed only licensing information, the regulation violated, and a vague reference to the patient rights at issue.” According to one of the attorneys representing the Center for Investigative Report, the documents “were completely redacted.” He emphasized that, given the limited information contained within those redacted documents, “you wouldn’t have any understanding of the facts that led to the issuance of the citation.”

Why weren’t state health officials providing all of the essential information? Turning to a decades-old law, the department argued that redacting the documents was necessary to “protect patient confidentiality,” and an appeals court tended to agree. However, the Supreme Court held that “citations are public records from which only patient names need to be withheld.”

Citations are Public Records

When the Supreme Court determined that citations are public records and thus only require the omission of patient names for privacy purposes, it emphasized that Californians should be able to know the background of nursing home citations at facilities across the state.

As Justice Goodwin Liu noted in the decision, the lawmakers behind the Long Term Care Act—the law on which the Supreme Court relied in making its decision—were “aware of the privacy concerns presented by public disclosure.” At the same time, the Long Term Care Act “expressly mandates that every writing DPH generates . . . is a matter of public record subject only to the redaction of the names of the individuals involved.”

While this case focused primarily on facilities that treat “mentally ill and developmentally disabled individuals,” it’s likely to have reverberations in the elder care community. Given recent concerns about elder abuse violations at many nursing homes and assisted-living facilities throughout California, the state Supreme Court’s decision may make it easier for families to choose a safe facilities for their loved ones.

When you’re thinking about helping a loved one transition into a nursing home or assisted-living facility, it’s important to make sure that the facility has a history that’s free from allegations of nursing home abuse or neglect. If you do suspect that your elderly parent has been the victim of elder abuse, you should speak with an experienced San Diego nursing home abuse lawyer as soon as possible.

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Staffing Shortages at Skilled Nursing Facilities

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