Jocelyn Wiener | CalMatters
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At an emotional legislative hearing Tuesday, lawmakers and critics subjected the Newsom administration to blistering questions about the state’s oversight of nursing homes.
Assemblymember Jim Wood, a Santa Rosa Democrat who chairs the Assembly Health Committee, questioned the state’s lack of urgency in addressing licensing concerns.
“Where is the proactive, patient centered, public safety approach here?” he asked Cassie Dunham, an acting deputy director of the California Department of Public Health. “Where is that?
“Because I don’t feel it right now. And yet here we are. Here we sit,” he said. “We have to wait for news articles. We have to wait for people to die.”
Democratic Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi of Los Angeles, who introduced legislation earlier this year to address some of these issues, also grilled Dunham about the department’s performance in caring for California’s most vulnerable residents..
“What I’m hearing is a lengthy history, that goes back decades, of the Department of Public Health failing to crack down on bad actors who are gaming the system,” he said.
The tense hearing touched on the department’s staffing levels and on nursing homes’ financial practices, issues which elder care advocates and legislators have raised for years and have triggered similar hearings.
“I struggle to accept the premise that nursing homes are underfunded when their owners are living in homes that are sometimes worth $11 million dollars,” said Kim Valentine, an Orange County attorney who has spent more than 20 years working on cases of elder abuse in nursing homes, in her testimony.
“I am petrified to get old,” she added. “This disgraceful, broken system of senior living care is something that we all need to care about. Because this is our future.”
Two officials of the embattled department acknowledged that some changes are needed but attempted to deflect criticism by pointing to the stresses of the COVID-19 crisis, which hit nursing homes especially hard.
“Throughout the (pandemic) response, the department’s absolute focus has been on saving lives,” said Dunham.
Much of the attention Tuesday was focused on longstanding licensing issues that CalMatters has documented extensively in recent months. The legislators repeatedly referenced reporting by CalMatters, which examined the state’s largest, for-profit nursing home owner, Shlomo Rechnitz of Los Angeles, and the unusual licensing decisions surrounding some of his homes. Lawmakers also cited work by KPCC and LAist, which looked at Crystal Solorzano, another controversial nursing home operator.
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