Nursing home abuse is a heinous example of what can happen when a criminal holds a position of power over a vulnerable senior citizen. Elder abuse can take four main forms: physical, mental, sexual and financial. Nursing home abuse is more prevalent than most people realize – largely due to widespread underreporting of this issue.
Lack of elder abuse reporting has kept this problem out of the public eye for decades. Only in recent years have researchers truly begun to realize the pervasiveness of this crime. Despite an increase in awareness, however, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has still found significant underreporting, according to a new study.
For years, national organizations and subject matter experts have tried and failed to accurately gauge the number of nursing home abuse incidents in the U.S. These efforts have largely been unsuccessful since many victims and even their family members do not report the abuse. Instead, elderly victims often suffer in silence, or else authorities lose their complaints in the shuffle. Inquiries into the prevalence of nursing home abuse result in mixed numbers.
The National Center on Elder Abuse states that education surrounding elder abuse is about 20 years behind domestic abuse and child abuse. The challenges in nursing home abuse research include vague definitions of elder abuse, ethical issues regarding the study of the mentally incapacitated, too many collection methods and lack of researchers in the field.
The HHS study, published in June 2019, analyzed 34,664 Medicare claims related to the treatment of abuse and neglect injuries. The dates on these cases ranged from January 2015 to June 2017. Medicare beneficiaries were mostly over the age of 65, but the demographics of the claimants studied ranged in age. Most were females (27,889 females vs. 7,186 males).
Almost 9,300 were claims linked to incidents of potential abuse and neglect that no one reported to law enforcement. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) did not identify claims that could relate to abuse or neglect because – according to officials – it does not extract data relating to the 17 diagnosis codes for abuse and neglect. This led to most cases never reaching the police. The HHS holds that lack of data gathering by the CMS has contributed to the inability to pursue legal recourse for elder abuse and neglect.
More than 90% of the records studied contained evidence of possible neglect, maltreatment and abuse. The HHS found that 31% of the Medicare claims (10,904 claims) related to abuse or neglect detailed incidents that occurred in inpatient settings such as hospitals and long-term care facilities. The total cost of these claims came to around $90.5 million. By category of diagnosis, sexual abuse and rape-related claims were the most common, followed by physical abuse, neglect/abandonment and unspecified maltreatment, in that order.
Elderly victims failing to come forward is not the only issue perpetuating underreporting. Lack of adequate data collection and ethical issues surrounding senior citizen’s privacy present additional challenges to research. The HHS study found that even in cases where inspectors investigated complaints of nursing home abuse, 97% never reported the allegations to law enforcement as local laws required.
When asked why this was the case, one agency said it only notified the police for “serious abuse cases.” Lack of specific definitions and organized reporting systems contribute to nursing home abuse cases falling through the cracks. The HHS ended its report by urging the CMS, nursing home inspectors, state agencies and health care providers to step up their efforts in noticing and addressing elder abuse and neglect.
If you suspect someone you love is enduring abuse in a nursing home, contact an experienced nursing home abuse attorney right away to protect their rights and fight to keep them safe.