Federal lawmakers are demanding action from government regulators to curb nursing home abuse and privacy violations of residents caused by degrading and dehumanizing images and videos posted of them on social media by caregivers.
Citing a December expose published by non-profit journalism outlet ProPublica, which reported 35 cases since 2012 in which workers at nursing homes or assisted living facilities covertly shared videos or photos of residents – many with dementia – on social media. At least two cases have occurred since the story was published.
Nearly half of those cases involved a platform called Snapchat, in which the photos or videos appear for only a set amount of short time before they are deleted. But of course, those images and videos can be copied or captured in screen grabs. Nothing on the internet is ever guaranteed to be truly impermanent.
Now, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., has penned a letter to the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, saying that such action by these workers is a violation of our moral obligation as a society to care for our most vulnerable. The civil rights office is the agency that enforces HIPPA, the federal patient privacy law, and it also can impose criminal and civil penalties for violations. However, it rarely uses this power.
Carper wants to know how many of these complaints the office has received, how many have resulted in civil penalties and how many have been referred to the U.S. Department of Justice for criminal sanctions. He also asked whether the office had any plans to issue directives to nursing homes on staff use of social media.
ProPublica reached out to the federal agency after catching wind of Carper’s request. The agency said it would respond to Carper, but could not comment on the matter publicly until then.
Soon after Carper made his request. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, formally requested information from the U.S. Justice Department regarding how aggressively it is working to pursue cases of elder abuse – specifically those cases involving staffers who take and share degrading videos or photos of patients.
Grassley too cited the ProPublica investigation. He said that as technology has expanded by leaps and bounds, we have an obligation to our aging population to make sure the nursing home care they are receiving is to the highest standards and that nursing home abuse and neglect posted on social media is promptly punished.
He characterized these social media posts as “horrifying,” noting that patients involved are frail, mentally and physically incapable of fighting back or speaking out.
Requests by both Grassley and Carper came after Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., asked for an investigation into the problem by the Senate Aging Committee.
A spokesman for the American Health Care Association, which is a trade group for nursing homes, says the problem is rare, but facilities do take it seriously. There have been a number of training sessions held so far.
But seeing as how these incidents continue to occur, lawmaker action is necessary where the industry has been ineffective at policing itself.
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Another Senator Calls for Action on Social Media Abuse of Nursing Home Residents, March 15, 2016, By Charles Ornstein, ProPublica
More Blog Entries:
Nursing Home Patient Privacy Compromised by Staff Social Media Exploits, Jan. 10, 2016, Fort Lauderdale Nursing Home Abuse Lawyer Blog