The clients of a long-term healthcare provider who owns two facilities in South County can proceed with a class action lawsuit that accuses the company of employing inadequate nursing staff for elderly and disabled residents, according to a California Court of Appeals decision announced last week.
Covenant Care, which owns Pacific Hills Manor, a nursing home on Noble Court in Morgan Hill, and Gilroy Healthcare and Rehabilitation, a skilled nursing and rehab home on Murray Avenue in Gilroy, issued a statement saying the parent company disagrees with the appeals court and will “vigorously” defend the lawsuit “if and when” it returns to trial court.
Both of the facilities have overall unfavorable ratings on the watchdog website calqualitycare.org which gathers information about nursing home and long-term care facilities in California, though Pacific Hills Manor’s director said the most recent staffing audit by the California Department of Public Health in 2011 was “deficiency free.”
The lawsuit was initially filed in 2011 in Alameda County Superior Court, by plaintiffs Charles Shuts and Kent Sterling on behalf of themselves and all Covenant Care residents.
Covenant Care, which is based in Aliso Viejo, successfully argued in Alameda County that the court had no jurisdiction over the complaints because only the state’s regulatory agencies – and not a civil private action – could enforce the state’s minimum staffing requirements.
However, last week the California Court of Appeals for the First District reversed that decision, sending the case back to the trial court.
The complaint accuses Covenant Care, which owns 25 facilities in California and numerous others in the Southwest and Midwest, of repeatedly violating the California Nursing Home Patient Bill of Rights, according to the AARP Foundation which filed an “amicus” brief supporting the original complaint.
Specifically, the lawsuit says Covenant Care failed to meet the minimal nursing staffing levels on a daily basis, employed an inadequate number of qualified personnel, and “systematically” concealed and misrepresented its staffing levels from state regulators, residents and their families, according to a press release from AARP.
The foundation, which is a long-time advocate for senior citizens, hailed the appeals court decision.
“It is vital that nursing facility residents be permitted to protect their rights to the fullest extent of the law,” said AARP attorney Kelly Bagby.
While the two local facilities owned by Covenant Care are not singled out in the lawsuit, AARP spokeswoman Christina Clem said the alleged incidents of inadequate care are “not isolated.”
“This is a class action lawsuit, on behalf of all the residents of Covenant Care, and targeting all of their facilities in the state of California,” Clem said.
In a statement responding to the appeals court decision, Covenant Care said it is “disappointed” in the decision.
“We believe the trial court made the right decision in dismissing the lawsuit and we will be pursuing that result vigorously through the legal system,” said Covenant Care’s statement. “It is important to point out that the court of appeals’ decision does not reflect in any way on the quality of care provided by Covenant Care facilities. Covenant Care is committed to and does indeed staff its facilities in a sufficient manner to provide proper care to its residents.”
The statement added that the recent decision contradicts previous rulings that resulted in dismissal of similar lawsuits.
“California Supreme Court review is necessary to resolve the conflicts between the decision in Shuts and other cases in which courts have dismissed similar lawsuits,” the statement continued.
Poor ratings from watchdog
The website calqualitycare.org, which offers “quality assessments” of long-term care facilities in California, gave Pacific Hills Manor an overall rating of “below average,” and Gilroy Healthcare and Rehabilitation a rating of “poor.”
However, the ratings are broken down into categories such as “quality of facility” and “quality of care.” In the “staffing” category, which is the area cited by the plaintiffs in the Alameda County lawsuit, Pacific Hills has a rating of “above average” and the Gilroy facility is rated “average.”
The site also links to citations, deficiencies and “enforcement actions” related to each facility on the California Department of Public Health’s website.
Calqualitycare.org notes that Pacific Hills Manor has been the subject of 78 deficiencies and citations in the last three years, and Gilroy Healthcare and Rehab has been tagged with 83 such reports in the same time frame. The three-year state average for deficiencies and citations at similar facilities is 50.
The California DPH has fined both facilities for violations several times in the last five years. In 2010, Pacific Hills was hit with fines of $18,500 for failing to meet resident notification requirements, and $17,500 for a violation of federal notification requirements, according to the DPH website.
Two fines of $600 have been imposed on the Gilroy facility – one in 2010 and one last year – for violating patients’ rights to “dignity and respect,” according to the DPH.
When it comes to staffing levels, calqualitycare.org lists “nursing hours per resident day” of 3.52 for Pacific Hills Manor, and 3.37 for Gilroy Healthcare and Rehab. The state average is 4.01 hours.
Gilroy Healthcare and Rehab has 134 beds, and Pacific Hills has 99 beds, according to calqualitycare.org. Both are almost fully occupied.
Calqualitycare.org is operated by the California HealthCare Foundation and the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California San Francisco. The ratings are based on an aggregation of data from state and federal regulatory agencies, as well as from the providers themselves.
Nursing homes are more heavily regulated at both the state and federal levels than other types of long-term care homes, such as assisted living or home health providers, according to CHCF senior program officer Stephanie Teleki.
The website is updated quarterly, and consumers can use the site to shop for the best long-term provider in their area.
“This is very useful because it will help you know what to focus on if your loved one is in that particular facility, and that could be something you could discuss with the management and staff” of the facility, Teleki said.
Covenant Care added in its statement responding to the appeals court that the company has provided “excellent long-term care” to communities for more than 17 years.
“We employ highly trained, licensed professionals that take their care duties and obligations seriously,” said the company’s statement. “We are committed to holding our employees to the highest of standards and we will continue to ensure quality care is provided to all of our residents.”