The director of the health agency gives some answers about the failure to investigate abuses in medical facilities

The head of the Arizona Department of Health offered some new insights into why the agency has failed to investigate hundreds of high-priority cases of abuse and neglect for years at long-term care facilities during a special meeting of the Arizona House of Representatives on Thursday .

“I’m not here to provide excuses, I’m here to provide solutions and show that we’re sincere,” Don Herrington, who has served as the agency’s interim director for nearly a year, told a group of stakeholders and lawmakers.

The House Select Committee on Abuse and Neglect of Vulnerable Adults was established after A case of sexual abuse at Hacienda Healthcarewhen a woman in a persistent vegetative state was found to have been repeatedly raped and impregnated by a male nurse at the facility.

Thursday’s meeting rehashed many of the same points that were discussed at a joint House-Senate hearing last month in which visibly frustrated lawmakers heated up Harrington for hours over a report by state auditors that said the department did not properly investigate the cases.

“I find that my fury has not diminished one bit,” said Congresswoman Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix, at the start of the meeting to review the materials again.

The auditor general’s report found that ADHS “artificially extended” the response time to high-priority complaints by almost a year.

The original investigation ended in September 2019, and none of the five recommendations made by auditors were addressed by this year’s follow-up report, according to testimony from Deputy Auditor General Melanie Chesney.

Instead, auditors found that these high-priority cases were often closed without investigation.

On average, auditors found that the department regularly failed to open an investigation within 10 days of high-profile cases, which took between 11 and 476 working days. The department told auditors that staff shortages and the pandemic were problems that prevented them from opening investigations in time.

Harrington clarified the staffing issues at Thursday’s meeting, saying he and the auditor general “disagree” that COVID-19 has played a role in impacting how they investigate cases.

“(Long-term care facilities) were the most vulnerable places on earth for people to get COVID,” Harrington said, adding that in the early days of the pandemic, there was no vaccine and no personal protective equipment (PPE) for ADHS staff or long-term care workers. cares.

In the early days when ADHS received PPE, the agency gave it to long-term care facilities and hospitals instead of keeping it for its own workers, making it difficult for them to go and inspect the facilities, Harrington said. It wasn’t until May 2020, two months after the pandemic began, that the department began re-entering facilities due to concerns that an asymptomatic ADHS employee could infect an entire facility, Harrington said.

“We were doing a lot in the way of infection control with the facilities at the time,” Harrington said, adding that a vaccine for COVID was not available until December 2020.

Staffing was also a major issue, as ADHS used nurses to conduct investigations — but hospitals that no longer had nurses during the pandemic paid much higher rates, and the agency was unable to hire staff for vacancies.

“We haven’t become competitive,” Harrington acknowledged to the commission, adding that as of last month, ADHS had added new hiring incentives, including raising the base pay level for RNs and PAs.

Harrington was unable to answer questions from Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma, who asked if the department was doing anything “outside the box,” like virtual visits, to make sure it was still trying to conduct inspections during the pandemic.

MPs also wanted to know what would happen to uninvestigated cases.

“I really can’t answer what happened in the past,” Harrington said, adding that they are trying to investigate what they can, but several members of management and those who handled those cases are no longer with the department.

“These are people, not reports, and we don’t treat them that way,” Longdon said, breaking down in tears as Dunn laid a comforting hand on her. “The people who are in these facilities are the most vulnerable in our community.”

The committee agreed to continue with the same recommendations the previous committee agreed to, and the department and the auditor general will have a follow-up report in 6 months due to the “serious nature” of the report.

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