Lawmakers seek oversight of state nursing homes, including troubled veterans home

Published 3/29/2023 1:26 p.m. EDT, Updated 3/29/2023 6:17 p.m. EDT

Charlotte Hall Veterans Home

Amid reports of longstanding abuse and neglect surfacing at Maryland’s only home for retired veterans, a Democratic lawmaker on Wednesday introduced legislation that would give the General Assembly a check on state nursing home operators.

The proposal comes on the heels of Gov. Wes Moore’s announcement that he’ll drop the private company that has run Charlotte Hall Veterans Home in St. Mary’s County since 2002, after the facility’s federal rating dropped from a four in 2019 to a one in January of 2023.

Del. Brian Crosby, a Democrat who has the home in his Southern Maryland district, said that while the legislation won’t necessarily prevent problems at state facilities, it will enable officials to address them more quickly.

If passed, the bill would require operators of state-owned nursing homes to report any citations from inspectors and financial penalties assessed to lawmakers and the governor and the responsible agency within 30 days. Should it become law, the health department must also create reports on nursing home deficiencies.

And it will prevent problems from escalating, Crosby said. Online reports revealed cases of abuse and neglect as far back as 2018 at Charlotte Hall, a state-owned, privately run 454-bed facility.

”It seems like, from the report, that we just kind of sat on multiple violations and nobody did anything about it,” said Crosby, who served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and is now a captain in the Maryland Army National Guard. “And most people who could do something about it didn’t even know.”

Crosby said that he was unaware of the extent of problems at Charlotte Hall. Had he known, he would have investigated potential actions.

Also unaware of the troubles at the veterans home in his district was Sen. Jack Bailey. The Republican waited to gather support from all 47 senators before introducing a companion bill on Thursday.

He said it was “very troubling” to have learned only weeks ago of the reports at the nursing home “a stone’s throw” from his own house.

“If there is treatment or other things that have occurred there in my own district, I wanted to be the one to bring a bill to make sure that we all knew about it,” Bailey said. “Because we didn’t know.”

Both legislators belong to the Maryland Veterans Caucus.

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When bills are introduced this late in the General Assembly session, they have to clear extra hurdles because multiple deadlines have passed.

Crosby and Bailey must stand and ask their fellow lawmakers for a vote of support just to have the bills introduced; the House version passed given the intense and bipartisan interest in the situation at Charlotte Hall.

Crosby expressed confidence that the bill will make it through the process and to the governor’s desk by the time lawmakers adjourn their session on April 10.

”There’s a lot more time than people realize,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Moore administration has hired a team of nurses to survey the health and wellness of residents. About 125 assessments have been conducted so far, according to Moore spokesperson Carter Elliott IV. The governor also designated $12.6 million in state funds to procure a new contractor.

During a March spending board meeting, Moore said that “within hours” of taking his oath of office his administration was made aware of documented deficiencies at Charlotte Hall he called “a moral failure of government.”

While Moore did not name who came forward during the early hours of his first term, he directed a message to them.

“Those who’ve witnessed and endured unsatisfactory conditions, who raised your hands and your voices to express your frustrations but found them falling into an empty void, I want to let you know this administration sees you, that this administration hears you,” Moore said.

During the transition period from one administration to the next, Moore said Hogan’s administration did not make them aware of the declining conditions at the state-owned, privately run home.

Hogan spokesperson David Weinman said the Hogan administration “ran the most open, transparent, and accessible transition process in Maryland history.”

Weinman did not work in Hogan’s administration, but prepared a statement in consultation with senior Hogan officials.

Weinman said the inspectors’ findings were “widely-known, well-documented, and subject to strong corrective action requirements. Governor Hogan’s administration took significant steps to hold the vendor accountable and correct documented deficiencies, while providing increased oversight.” He added, it would have been “grossly irresponsible” to remove needed health care workers amid a pandemic and a nursing shortage without an alternative to ensure continuity of service.

George W. Owings III, veterans affairs secretary under Hogan and two other governors, said he’d “take the blame” for incidents that happened while he led the agency.

The Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs is responsible for overseeing Charlotte Hall Veterans Home, and the secretary appoints the home’s director, a state employee.

“If you can’t step up and take the blame, then get out of the job,” said Owings, who stated he and Hogan never had a one-to-one conversation about the home.

Russell Keogler, vice president of HMR of Maryland LLC, confirmed collaborating with the former administration as deficiencies were cited, but said in a statement the home “remained in compliance with state and federal standards.”

Online reports going back to 2018 revealed private health care contractor HMR of Maryland LLC failed to keep patients safe from each other and from staff. One 2021 report documented the facility’s failure to protect residents from sexual abuse at the hands of a resident with a known history of inappropriate sexual behavior.

Months after the April 2021 report, the state spending board extended the $170 million contract for HMR of Maryland LLC, tacking on an additional $85 million despite former State Treasurer Nancy Kopp — one of three voting members of the Board of Public Works — saying she had only recently learned of the home’s troubles from news articles.

“We certainly would have raised the issue,” she said, but given the timing of the pandemic, “it doesn’t mean that the conclusion would have been different.”