About 5,000 applicants for jobs caring for the elderly have been rejected after background checks disclosed criminal records or a history of abusing patients.
The results, compiled by the Senate Aging Committee, represent lawmakers' first efforts at evaluating a pilot program, used in seven states, that was designed to reduce cases of people preying on the elderly.
Congress approved the program in 2003. It gave the selected states the seed money _ $16.4 million in all _ to beef-up their background checks for workers who care for the elderly, primarily nursing home staff. Now, some lawmakers believe the findings justify expanding the program nationally.
"It's helped identify thousands of people who should not be working in nursing homes," said Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., chairman of the Senate Aging Committee. "Every facility that hires these people should have that information available to them."
Nursing home workers in every state are subject to some type of background check. But federal investigators describe the overall effort as a patchwork system _ one filled with dangerous gaps.
For example, each state maintains a registry of nurse aides who have been found guilty by a court or who have been deemed by state officials as mistreating residents or defrauding them.
However, many states only check the names on their own nurse aide registry. They don't check the names on other states' registries.
Most states also require criminal background checks, but the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services recently concluded that the checks were often limited in scope. Again, they were often limited to crimes in just one state.
The pilot project helped states pay for establishing and operating more extensive databases. Job applicants screened through the pilot project were required to submit fingerprints so that they could be checked at the national level for a criminal history.
Access to the FBI's national database was key, Kohl said. Some workers with checkered histories move frequently to gain work caring for the elderly in nursing homes, hospice centers and home health agencies.
Michigan, which got the largest grant, $3.5 million, used the money to link several databases, including the state's sex offender registry and its nurse aide registry. More than 3,100 applicants in Michigan were excluded during that phase of the search.
If no matches are found in the various registries, then the applicant's fingerprints are sent to the Michigan State Police and to the FBI. About 700 more were excluded after that phase, according to the Aging Committee's review.
The result: About 5 percent of applicants in Michigan were prevented from working in nursing homes, as well as hospice centers, home health agencies and psychiatric hospitals.
For those with criminal histories, about a quarter had drug or theft offenses. Orlene Christie of Michigan's Department of Community Health said excluding individuals with such records makes sense given their access to patient's medicine as well as financial information, such as credit cards.
"The people who work in our facilities may have access to prescription drugs, financial and medical records and other identifying information," Christie said. "In this age of identity theft and drug abuse, we must give our patients peace of mind while they are cared for in our facilities."
Kohl made clear that the large majority of nursing home workers do a good job of caring for the elderly. But, the committee's review of the pilot project indicates that about 3 to 5 percent of applicants have a background that should preclude them from working in such facilities.
Each year, ombudsmen for nursing home patients get thousands of complaints alleging abuse, neglect or exploitation. In 2005, ombudsmen got 20,622 such complaints. Of those complaints, about 5,200 alleged physical abuse and 1,200 alleged sexual abuse. Another 4,100 alleged verbal or mental abuse.
Besides Michigan, the states participating in the pilot project were Alaska, Idaho, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico and Wisconsin. Some of the states used the funding for more extensive checks in just a few counties. The program ends Sept. 30, but all seven states plan to continue their expanded background checks in some form, the Aging Committee's review indicated.
On the Net:
Special Committee on Aging: http://aging.senate.gov/
Long-term Care Ombudsman Center: http://www.ltcombudsman.org/default.cfm
Source: AP News