CHICAGO — A state agency charged with protecting disabled adults who live at home followed "neither the intent nor the language" of the law, the chairman of an Illinois House committee said Tuesday.
Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, made the remark during a hearing conducted by the House Human Services Committee. Harris said the hearing was being conducted for "a particularly sad reason," and that the state Department of Human Services had "failed" in its responsibilities to protect the disabled.
The committee is looking into issues raised by a Belleville News-Democrat investigation.
The BND, in a series that began in June, reported the agency did not investigate the cases of at least 53 disabled adults who lived at home but died soon after allegations of abuse or neglect were made to a state hotline.
The agency determined that the dead were "ineligible for services," including an agency investigation into whether their deaths were connected to mistreatment or to criminal acts.
"We failed to adequately investigate complaints of abuse and neglect against the disabled," Harris said. "They might have been saved."
The newspaper also reported that hundreds of hotline calls for help were rerouted or were not accepted for various reasons including that, in the opinion of a hotline operator, the information received did not rise to the level of intervention.
The stories led to the resignation of the agency's top investigator, Inspector General William M. Davis, who resigned effective Tuesday, and to an executive order by Gov. Pat Quinn revamping the OIG's investigative procedures.
Michael McCotter, a former patrol and detective division commander in the Chicago Police Department, has been appointed by Quinn as a "special investigator" to improve the way the agency investigates.
One of the witnesses for the hearing was Michael Gelder, senior health policy adviser to Gov. Pat Quinn. Gelder said: "We can't undo what has been done, but we can do better."
Gelder also said the people whose cases have been reported in the news "are the exceptions."
A member of the committee, Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, asked Gelder if the state's handling of the cases meets the definition of neglect or malfeasance. Gelder said he would have to consult an attorney before answering that.
Kay asked, "Can we define it as just not doing your job?"
"Yes, I think there's no question that certain job responsibilities were not fulfilled in these cases about which we're hearing and learning and trying to respond to," Gelder responded.
Kay told Gelder he thinks there has been neglect, malfeasance "and maybe worse."
Another member of the committee, Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, asked Gelder what the legislature "could possibly do to make the law any clearer."
Gelder replied: "We have a lot of laws in place."
Flowers replied: "That's my point."
The director of DHS, Michelle R.B. Saddler, testified that the agency admittedly has "deficiencies," but added that "we strive to have what we call a culture of caring."
She said a number of steps are being taken to correct problems. She also said the agency will make any changes that are deemed necessary.
"You have my commitment on that," she said.
Flowers asked Saddler about the number of employees in the agency. Saddler said DHS had about 20,000 employees in 1997, and now has a little more than 12,000. Saddler said there have been painful staffing decisions made at state agencies due to funding problems.
Saddler said she wanted the OIG's office to adhere to "not only the letter of the law, but to the spirit and intent of the law." However, in answer to a panel member's question, she insisted that in many uninvestigated death cases, coroners were notified, but no record was made of the notification. Harris replied that coroners had a different recollection, a reference to a recent BND story where coroners or their assistants in 10 of the state's largest counties, including the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office could not remember ever receiving notification of allegations of abuse or neglect against a decedent from the OIG.
According to a report submitted by Saddler and her staff, there is only one investigator located outside of Chicago who investigates allegations of abuse, neglect and financial exploitations of disabled adults who live at home. Saddler acknowledged there were 34 jobs in the OIG's office that have been vacant for at least five years, but, under questioning from committee members, she acknowledged that she never requested increasing her budget to fill those jobs.
"And your agency failed to protect the people with the law that was already on the books," Flowers said to Saddler.
Rita Burke, who has been chairwoman of the Quality Care Board for 20 years, asked the committee not to rely on a newspaper investigation, but conduct an "official investigation. The Quality Care Board oversees practice and policies for the Office of the Inspector Generals. Flowers asked Burke what her board had been doing.
"We should probably be looking at you, too," Flowers told Burke.
After her testimony, Burke and two of the board members acknowledged that they received five redacted death, abuse and neglect reports selected by the OIG per quarter. The three board members didn't remember that any case was ineligible for services because the disabled person had died.
The Quality Care Board has three vacancies on the seven-member panel.
Ann Spillane, chief of staff for Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office, told the committee that she wanted to see an expansion of the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, staffed by Illinois State Police and funded by a federal grant, to investigate abuse and neglect allegations. She also requested training for local law enforcement and establishing death review teams for disabled adults who reside at home.
Harris, the committee chairman, said the state owes gratitude to a "couple heroes" -- whistleblower state employees who "risked their jobs and careers" to bring the issue to light. Harris also recognized the BND for its "relentless reporting."