Nursing home employees who take and distribute demeaning photos or videos of patients on social media platforms should be forewarned: The feds are getting involved.
These images, as our nursing home abuse lawyers have detailed, have included humiliating depictions of residents who are unclothed, covered in their own waste or even deceased. In some cases, the images show actual nursing home abuse. Most of the images are uploaded to a platform called Snapchat.
Following a journalism non-profit ProPublica series on the troubling issue, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal government agency responsible for oversight of nursing homes in the U.S., has issued a memorandum to state health departments indicating:
- Ensuring all nursing homes have clear policies that forbid staffers from taking demeaning photos of residents;
- Requiring state health officials to swiftly launch an investigation into any complaints of such treatment;
- Calling on nursing homes to report any workers who violate these policies immediately to state officials or other licensing agencies.
It is the state agencies that typically enforce and mete out the discipline in these cases. The federal intervention is noteworthy because these are the agencies that pay for the majority of nursing home residents’ care. Failure to abide by these directives could be a breach of patients’ basic rights to dignity and quality treatment, which in turn could be grounds to deny federal payment.
The CMS underscored that all nursing homes have a duty to protect patients’ dignity and privacy and to shield them from abuse. That includes providing training on abuse prevention and a thorough investigation of all abuse allegations. Failure to do so, the CMS stated, could result in citations, fines and possibly even expulsion from the Medicare program. Most nursing homes would not be able to operate without these funds.
The other reason this memo is important is that it clarifies that federal officials do interpret these actions as nursing home abuse. There had been some concern about the ability to punish such actions as snapping photographs – even without the consent of the resident – may not technically be illegal in some areas. But the memo makes it clear that this type of action is indeed a form of exploitation and that it will be taken seriously by authorities, given that nursing homes have a legal duty to protect residents from abuse.
ProPublica reporters identified nearly 50 instances since 2012 in which employees at assisted living centers and nursing homes snapped and then shared photographs of residents on social media sites, including Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook.
Another reason this directive was essential is that it sets a uniform standard for how this type of abuse needs to be written up by inspectors. It also indicates the type of severe sanctions that should be imposed in the event these actions come to light. This was key because in the last few years, there has been significant variability from state-to-state and nursing home-to-nursing home.
This effort tails the suggestions recently offered by the American Health Care Association, an industry trade group, in which the various social media platforms were identified and explained and preventative policies were outlined.
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Federal Health Officials Seek to Stop Social Media Abuse of Nursing Home Residents, Aug. 8, 2016, By Charles Ornstein and Jessica Huseman, ProPublica
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Feds: Florida Nursing Home Network Defrauded $1B, Aug. 10, 2016, Boca Raton Nursing Home Abuse Lawyer Blog