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Each legislative session thousands of bills and amendments are introduced in the Pennsylvania Legislature. Only a fraction become law, and an even smaller portion receive wide media coverage.

These bills impact the lives of people living in Pennsylvania every day. Each week The Sentinel will highlight one bill that has not received widespread attention.

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Two new Pennsylvania House of Representatives bills would dramatically increase oversight of nursing homes by requiring every death at a long-term care facility be reported to a coroner.

House Bill 1713 would require nursing facilities to report deaths “as soon as practicable.” It would forbid bodies from being moved until authorized by the coroner, and would give the coroner investigative powers if he believes the circumstances of the death are unusual.

House Bill 1714 would create similar responsibilities for assisted living residences and personal care homes.

State Reps. Frank Burns, D-Johnstown, and Jeanne McNeill, D-Whitehall, the bill’s primary sponsors, didn’t pull any punches when explaining why they think it is necessary.

“Currently, facilities only contact their local county coroner for a death that is suspicious, such as the result of homicide or accident, not deaths that may have occurred from natural causes or a progressive disease,” they wrote in a co-sponsorship memo. “This can lead to subjective decision-making in determining (whether to report deaths) that may have actually been a result of inadequate care — something that bad actors in these facilities might try to hide in order to prevent further investigation.”

The proposal met with sharp opposition from representatives of the health care industry. Adam Martles, president and CEO of not-for-profit senior services trade organization LeadingAgePA, told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News another layer of review of deaths could increase the trauma grieving families face.

Pennsylvania Health Care Association President and CEO Zach Shamberg was more critical, suggesting an ulterior motive for the legislation.

“This proposal reeks of the plaintiffs’ bar and their desire to find more and more avenues to litigate against Pennsylvania’s hardworking nursing home providers and staff,” Shamberg told McKnight’s.

The bill would also increase the workload for coroners, and people in other states have suggested coroner’s office budgetary constraints can limit the effectiveness of such laws.

Arkansas and Missouri have long had similar laws requiring nursing home deaths to be reported to the coroner. Between 1999 and 2003, the Pulaski County, Arkansas coroner’s office referred 86 deaths to a state oversight agency in cases of suspected neglect. These reports “included disturbing photos and descriptions of the decedents that suggested the existence of serious, avoidable care problems” such as pressure sores, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. The GAO concluded that a lack of state and federal oversight nationwide was contributing to nursing home resident neglect.

Pennsylvania’s nursing homes are already overseen by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, which investigates incidents and can issue fines. However, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has suggested the fines are not sufficient to deter problematic structural problems like understaffing at many nursing homes.

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Daniel Walmer covers public safety for The Sentinel. You can reach him by email at dwalmer@cumberlink.com or by phone at 717-218-0021.

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