Nursing Home Whistleblowers Fired

More than a month ago two nurse assistants at Bandera Road's Princeton Place nursing home started noticing problems. Sandra Lujan, a four-year veteran of the facility, claimed she saw elderly patients with abnormal and excessive bruising, including bruises in the shapes of fingers and torn skin on faces. Sonia Roman, a nurse assistant at Princeton Place for two years, also saw similar bruising. She also questioned whether there was enough staff to care for all 134 patients, saying many were routinely left unattended. She even confronted one nurse she saw verbally abusing and threatening an elderly patient.

Last month both brought reports of abuse and neglect to the nursing home's administration. Within hours both were suspended for insubordination and eventually fired. The allegations are contained in a wrongful termination suit Lujan and Roman filed in Bexar County this week. Princeton Place administrator Joan Heinen declined to comment on the allegations, saying she hadn't yet read the lawsuit.

Marynell Maloney, a medical malpractice and wrongful death attorney representing Lujan and Roman, wouldn't have typically taken a wrongful termination suit, but said it represents one of the only options left to trial lawyers hoping reform wayward nursing homes since Texas passed sweeping tort reform in 2003. Princeton Place seems a target as any. Every state inspection since 2001 (the earliest year data is available) has returned a finding for non-compliance. Inspectors with the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services last year cited the facility for poor record keeping, failing to hire employees with "no legal history of abusing, neglecting or mistreating residents," and improper treatment for residents on feeding tubes.

State budget cuts (which have reduced staff by about one-forth at nursing homes since 2001) coupled with tort reform (which largely eliminated trial lawyers' role as de facto watchdogs of the industry), has hampered accountability, Maloney said. Tort reform capped damages for medical malpractice suits and made it more difficult to sue nursing homes for malpractice, removing one of the greatest deterrents to bad behavior, Maloney said. "Trial lawyers were historically advocates for [those in nursing homes] but they were sort of cut out of the equation when tort reform went into effect," Maloney said. "That's why this is particularly alarming," she said. "Two employees came forward. … and instead of it being investigated, they lost their jobs."

[Text taken from The Queque, San Antonio Current, April 4, 2012]