Recent reports out of Pennsylvania regarding a push for investigations into suspicious deaths of nursing home and assisted living residents have compelled our nursing home abuse and neglect attorneys to revisit the law here in Cook County regarding nursing home deaths.
All eyes in the elder rights and nursing home abuse law profession have been on Pennsylvania, as the former largest nursing home chain, Golden Living Centers, has become the subject of a lawsuit filed by the PA state attorney general. The lawsuit alleges poor care, records falsification, failure to prevent insect infestations, poor infection management of residents, and other forms of abuse and neglect that have led to resident injuries and death.
The struggling nursing home chain eventually sold off all of its Pennsylvania locations to different owners. A November 2018 Penn Live investigation called “Still Failing the Frail” found that the majority of the former Golden Living nursing homes are cited as much or more often than they were before the sale, indicating that despite a change of hands, nothing has gotten better at these facilities.
The Lehigh County coroner, Scott Grim, is pushing for a new state law that would require nursing homes and assisted living facilities to report any suspicious deaths to the coroner. From there, the coroner would run through a series of standard questions regarding the patient’s health and the circumstances of death. If red flags are raised, the coroner would be required to conduct a full death investigation, including examining the body and obtaining medical records. Penn Live referenced several other states with similar laws, including Arkansas, Missouri, and Illinois, although Cook County is excluded from the law requiring nursing homes to report suspicious deaths to the coroner. However, we do have a separate law in Cook County that requires a suspicious death occurring in any setting to be reported to the coroner.
Cook County: Too Many Suspicious Deaths, Too Few Medical Examiners
The law in Cook County specifically requires that any death that is suspicious in nature be investigated by a medical examiner. The problem is that Cook County is large, the number of suspicious deaths is high, and the department is lacking employees, a problem Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has blamed on lack of funding.
In February, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that their analysis of records from August 2014 to October 2017 showed that there was AT LEAST 1 suspicious death reported each day and that Cook County medical examiners only showed up to 23% of homicides and 56% of suicides. To further drive the point home, the Sun-Times noted that examiners never even showed up to investigate the death scene of Laquan McDonald, the unarmed teen who was fatally shot by former Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke.
The Sun-Times report also revealed that of the 15,000 plus deaths reported during that 3 year period, a medical examiner never showed up to investigate 12,303 deaths that were later ruled homicides or accidents.
Toni Preckwinkle’s team has pointed out that a lack of funding prevents them from hiring more medical examiners, but part of the problem seems like it could be solved with harsher rules and punishments for the department. The Sun-Times found a 130 day period in which not one death was investigated by a medical examiner. What were they doing instead? No one is certain.
Suspicious Nursing Home Deaths in Illinois
The push by Pennsylvania for a law forcing nursing homes to report suspicious deaths would be a welcome piece of legislation and one that would hopefully set the standard for other states to adopt similar laws. However, perhaps Pennsylvania medical examiners’ offices are better funded than ours here in Cook County. Without punishments such as job suspensions, firing, or fines imposed, what reason do medical examiners in our county have to go out and actually do their job? It seems simply being paid to do a job isn’t enough to spur action. If medical examiners are too “busy” to investigate the scene of Laquan McDonald’s death, why would they show up to a nursing home to examine the death of an elderly man or woman?
Furthermore, if Illinois ever enacted an identical law, what incentive would nursing homes themselves have for calling in suspicious deaths to the coroner? It’s easier for them to pass off a resident’s death as simply a natural cause resulting from advanced age or other medical conditions.
The number of nursing home complaints continues to rise dramatically, especially here in Illinois, proving that while quality care in nursing homes should be the standard, it’s hardly the norm these days.
If you have lost a loved one in a nursing home and suspect suspicious circumstances, the attorneys of Levin & Perconti can help. With nearly 3 decades of experience and over half a billion dollars recovered for our clients, we are Chicago’s top nursing home abuse and neglect attorneys. While you may not be able to get answers from your loved one’s nursing home, WE CAN and WE WILL.
Contact us now for a free consultation at (312) 332-2872, toll-free at 877-374-1417 or by completing our online case evaluation form.