State creating teams to investigate complaints about nursing homes

Faced with alarming delays in investigating nursing home complaints, the state is creating teams to speed up scrutiny.

State nursing home investigators blew their deadlines to investigate complaints of "high potential of harm" against residents in all but 33.4 percent of investigations in fiscal 2009, according to state statistics. That continues a slide in recent years. In fiscal 2008, 38.8 percent of investigations were started on time, and in 2007, 42.3 percent.

In such complaints, mental, physical or psychosocial harm is possible, though not imminent, and an investigation must be initiated within 14 days.

In response, the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services will put together teams to speed the state's response. Next month, the department will begin to hire 35 new investigators.

Chris Traylor, who became the department's commissioner Jan. 1, says he wants to take aggressive steps to improve response times as quickly as possible.

"While we're doing a good job responding to the most serious complaints and incidents, I'm concerned about our ability to respond quickly to every complaint and incident," Traylor said. "We need to do all we can to ensure the safety of Texans in nursing homes."

Complaint investigation teams are being set up statewide. Made up of nurses, nutritionists, social workers and general investigators, the teams will be dedicated solely to conducting investigations of complaints and self-reported incidents.

This month, the department plans a two-week blitz to investigate 1,550 complaints at more than 300 facilities, a department spokeswoman said.

The department regulates 1,196 nursing homes statewide and investigated 16,200 complaints and incidents last year.

Tim Graves, president and CEO of the Texas Health Care Association, which has long fought against what it calls inadequate state funding for long-term healthcare services, said the organization wants a fair and responsive regulatory system.

"As I understand it, this is a backlog that they're trying to get cleaned up quickly," Graves said. "Anytime there's a complaint, we think it ought to be investigated."

Investigators got to cases likely to cause serious injury, harm, impairment or death to a resident on time more than 99 percent of the time in 2009.

DARREN BARBEE, 817-390-7126