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Raise high the safety net for nursing homes

St. Clair County Coroner Rick Stone concluded there was no criminal wrongdoing when an elderly wheelchair-bound patient fell down a stairwell at Midwest Rehabilitation in Belleville recently, but he also pointed out that the nursing home did do things wrong.

The alarm that should have sounded when the stairwell door opened was turned down to a chime, perhaps not to bother the staff. Maybe Juanita Simmons would still be alive if the alarm had been loud and attention-getting. The staff didn’t notify the police or the coroner as should have happened; the funeral director who picked up the body said he was told that the coroner had already been there and gone.

Anyone who has read the inspection reports on Midwest wouldn’t be surprised by any of this. The place is rated one star on the Medicare website, or “much below average.” That low rating isn’t helping residents and their families.

Stone points out that Simmons’ family could file a civil lawsuit. If they do, they will have to get in line. Four wrongful death lawsuits have been filed against the nursing home in the last three years.

The state could come down hard on the nursing home, but that hasn’t been the pattern in the past. When a patient wandered away and died outside in the cold in 2012, the Illinois Department of Public Health fined the nursing home $55,000, then gave it a break and reduced the penalty to $25,000.

State oversight is supposed to provide a safety net for residents, but instead of holding patients high off the ground, the net is so low it drags in the mud.

The health department just completed its investigation of Simmons’ death but has yet to make public the results. Let’s see if the penalties assessed this time raise up that safety net, or enables business to continue “much below average.”

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