PHOENIX — Under tense questioning from reporters about how the public can determine whether or not a long-term care facility has COVID-19 cases, Arizona Health Department Director Dr. Cara Christ said they can’t, but suggested people should check the state’s inspection website for a facility’s history.
“So you can find out if there have been inspections or issues with infection control at AZcarecheck.com,” Christ said on April 29.
To be clear, the website does not offer any information on facilities and COVID-19.
Based on ADHS’s years-long failure to properly investigate complaints, it also does not offer a complete or accurate picture of a facility’s past.
“To insinuate that there is anything there to help people (regarding COVID-19) is ridiculous,” said Rep. Kelli Butler, D - North Phoenix.
In defiance of public record requests, state leaders have refused to produce the names and locations of long-term care facilities that have COVID-19 cases. The facilities account for a majority of deaths in the Valley.
ABC15 is now examining its legal options to compel the release of the information.
Butler has raised concerns over ADHS’s inspection history since a state audit was released in September 2019 that highlighted significant issues with the way the state handle’s long-term care facility complaints.
The audit found that health inspectors had problems with:
- Uninvestigated complaints
- Uninvestigated self-reports from facilities, which have to disclose certain issues like injuries, abuse, and deaths.
- Improper and incomplete investigations.
In a sample of cases, auditors found ADHS classified 36 of 37 facility self-reports as “no action necessary.”
“For example, one “no action necessary” self-report was closed on the same day it was reported to the Department and involved allegations that a resident with ambulatory issues was being thrown around like a “rag doll” by a staff member,” the audit stated.
Auditors discovered the number of overlooked cases was significant.
“The Department also provided us with unaudited data from its system in June 2019 showing that 2,767 of the total 4,958 complaints and self-reports the Department received in calendar years 2017 and 2018 for its long-term care facilities, or approximately 56 percent, were open and uninvestigated,” according to the audit report.
ABC15 investigations have also exposed troubling cases inside long-term care facilities that were investigated by the state but inspectors found “no deficiencies.”
“The complaint process at ADHS doesn’t seem to be working well and hasn’t been working well for a long time,” Butler said.
In a response letter, ADHS disagreed with the audits results.
Dr. Christ also disagrees with multiple top experts in public information and health privacy about whether it’s legal to release the names and locations of long-term care facilities with COVID-19 cases.
The state maintains that is protected health information.
“People put a lot of trust in us with their communicable disease information and it is state law,” Christ said.
But Butler said it’s hard to trust an agency that failed to investigate thousands of complaints in long-term care facilities.
“There were complaints by medical workers and residents at these facilities who saw horrible things happening and complained about it and then it was never followed up on,” she said. “Things that could really impact someone’s health and this was before the COVID-19 crisis.”
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at email@example.com.