I-TEAM: Investigators cut off from nursing homes as pandemic rages

Published: Jul. 30, 2020 at 6:14 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Families remain cut off from loved ones in nursing homes as COVID-19 continues to ravage long-term care facilities.

Before the pandemic, families relied on the ombudsman to investigate allegations of abuse or neglect, but even they are now cut off from nursing home residents.

But even before COVID-19, lengthy investigations could frustrate family members seeking answers.

We found understaffed agencies, coupled with COVID-19, could make the delays even worse.

Time is of the essence when a loved one is in a possible neglectful situation, but we found it took nearly 100 days for a regional ombudsman and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control to investigate a family’s concerns of possible neglect and that’s before the pandemic hit.

But let’s focus on more on our story -- mainly the story of Margaret and Theron Garvin.

You see, life is like a camera -- focus on what’s important, capture the good times, and if things don’t work out, just take another shot.

There are no more shots left for 95-year-old Theron and 82-year-old Margaret. The loving couple moved into Anchor Health and Rehabilitation Center after Theron’s second stroke and Margaret was diagnosed with dementia. They died less than a year later.

We combed through notes written by Kristy Garvin taken when she visited her in-laws.

“Nobody should see their loved one soiled or you have to constantly advocate because she has no clothes on,” Kristy said.

Kristy started sending what she claims she was seeing to the regional ombudsman in August. Ombudsmen are state advocates for nursing home patients. Meanwhile, another visit, another note on Aug. 19, Kristy says she finds Theron shivering in the hallway with a small blanket. Staff check on him. He has a 104 degree temperature. Kristy alleges the director of nursing later tells her she was not informed by her staff. Theron is admitted to the hospital.

“It’s like ripping your heart out,” Kristy said. “This man that you have known all these years to be strong and help others to help you and love you and care for you to be at his weakness moments.”

Theron went into cardiac arrest and died 11 days later. Kristy asks the ombudsman to open an investigation before he passed away. A month later she asks the same ombudsman to investigate the care of her mother in law.

Days and then weeks went by. Kristy asks for an update.

The ombudsman is working on it. She tells Kristy she visited her mother-in-law twice for a total of 5 hours, but didn’t see anything of concern. Kristy asks if she notified DHEC, the state agency which oversees nursing homes. The ombudsman replies, “I have not forwarded any complaints specific to the Garvins at this time.”

Kristy filed a complaint herself with DHEC.

According to documents obtained by the I-Team, DHEC found two violations during the investigation -- both of which are class one violations, meaning the violations present “an imminent danger -- death or serious harm could result therefrom.”

Theron and Margaret both passed away before DHEC closed its investigation. Margaret died of heart failure. DHEC did not suggest that the violations it found in any respect caused either Theron or Margaret’s deaths.

A spokesperson for Anchor Health and rehabilitation sent us this: “We work closely with and communicate at least weekly with DHEC and the South Carolina Long-Term Care ombudsman, and that helps explain why we have a 4-star quality rating from the federal government, exceed state and national averages in improved mobility for patients and discharges for short-term patients and why we are so proud of the services and skilled care we provide residents.”

The I-Team found before the pandemic, the ombudsman investigated more than 9,600 complaints in South Carolina and more than 5,000 in Georgia. But that was then, and this is now. The virus has shut out ombudsman from going inside of facilities since March. The federal government also suspended all non-emergency inspections during the pandemic.

Brian Lee is the executive director of Families for Better Care, a nursing home advocacy group.

“Annual inspections aren’t occurring at facilities anymore,” Lee said. “There are no ombudsman going in there. There is no accountability. No one knows what’s going on in nursing homes right now except the nursing homes.”

DHEC inspectors in South Carolina and Department of Community Health inspectors in Georgia are still mandated to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect in nursing homes during the pandemic. However, resources are tight. Georgia is currently short 23 inspectors and only has 33 inspectors to cover every nursing home in the state -- all while still responding to outbreaks of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities.

“You try to communicate,” Kristy said. “You advocate like they say.”

Although it took nearly a hundred days to close out the investigation, the Garvins at least had an advocate and an inspector able to go into the facility before the pandemic.

Now with inspections on pause and communication cut off, officials say you are “spinning your wheels.”

More families could be left feeling like their concerns are getting nowhere, too.

DHEC ordered Anchor to re-educate its nursing staff and to audit patient daily records.

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