PHOENIX — The Arizona Auditor General released a damning report this week saying Arizona placed nursing home residents at risk because the state failed to properly investigate complaints of abuse and neglect in facilities. The report is a follow-up to a September 2019 review that faulted the state health department then on how it investigated complaints at nursing homes.
"It has some disturbing allegations," said Don Herrington, interim Director at Arizona's Department of Health Services.
The Auditor General reviewed 156 high-priority complaints the AZDHS investigated between July 1, 2019 and April 21, 2021. The report says AZDHS failed to initiate onsite investigations in 73% of those instances within the required 10 working days. The report also says AZDHS inappropriately changed 98% of its high priority complaints to lower priorities, artificially extending the time frame for responding from ten days to one year.
"From our perspective when we see that type of report come out with that kind of information of course we are appalled here," Herrington said.
Longtime advocate Dana Kennedy, State Director for AARP, believes "the report says the state has completely failed to protect our most vulnerable adults."
Kennedy says there must be more transparency and follow-up when AZDHS investigates complaints. "If a complaint is made how are they responding? What is the follow-up? If they're citing a facility, what are they citing them for and make sure the facility is held accountable."
Herrington says an internal review is underway to find out if cases were improperly classified. He insists every high-priority complaint filed since January 2021 was investigated within the required ten days. Herrington says during a portion of the review, the department's efforts were focused on COVID infection control in nursing homes. In 2021 AZDHS received an additional $1.6 million to hire 15 surveyors, the workers who inspect and follow up on complaints at nursing homes. Only $31,000 of the money has been spent so far because Herrington says the agency can't find qualified people to hire.
The Auditor General's report says AZDHS's lack of staff, and the COVID-19 pandemic do not explain the problems identified in the follow up report. The report says, neither mitigates its failure to appropriately prioritize and investigate complaints/self-reports alleging abuse or neglect of long-term care facility residents. "We've all been in this place where we've had a loved one in one of these facilities. We all want to make sure they've been treated right and the facilities are being run correctly," Herrington said.