Feb. 15, 2001 -- According to the federal government, more than one out of four nursing homes are so substandard they threaten their patients' health. In some cases, elderly patients have been physically abused by the very people entrusted to care for them.
With such horrors in mind, the Maryland legislature holds hearings today on a bill that would give nursing-home residents the right to install video cameras in their rooms to detect and prevent abuse. If passed, it will be the first measure of its kind in the United States.
Maryland Delegate Susan Hecht is testifying in favor of the bill before the legislature's Environmental Matters Committee. She told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America today that she began a crusade to pass the so-called "Grannycam" bill after her mother was mistreated in a nursing home.
"My mom had kept talking about being scared and not getting good care," says Hecht. "She couldn't identify the person, the name, but I happened to walk in during the middle of the day and witnessed an abusive incident of my mother while she was in the bathroom."
Hecht says what really scares her is the idea that there is much more similar abuse that simply goes undetected.
Patients' Rights and Privacy
There are currently about 1.6 million residents living in about 17,000 nursing homes across the United States.
Politicians in Texas, Illinois and Michigan are watching to see what comes of the bill in Maryland. Efforts have been made to pass similar legislation in each of those three states.
The Maryland bill would give nursing home residents the right to install surveillance cameras in their rooms. Nursing homes would be obliged to allow such monitoring if a resident desires it and could not refuse someone admittance just because they wish to install such a camera.
The bill also proposes guidelines to safeguard the privacy of third parties: If a room is shared, the other resident must grant permission; a sign warning visitors of the video monitoring would be required; and the resident and his or her family would bear the financial cost of installing the equipment.
Matters of Trust
The nursing-home industry objects to the so-called "grannycam" proposal, calling it an invitation to lawsuits. Industry spokesmen say such monitoring would discourage people from seeking nursing-home jobs.
Dr. Charles Roadman, president of the American Health Care Association, says that the cameras endanger the trust between caregivers and patients.
"Placing a camera in a room is often the action of someone looking to sue," he said in a statement issued last year. "Moving a patient to a safe location or taking other immediate steps is the reaction of someone who cares. Cameras can also have the effect of unduly disrupting a positive, trusting relationship between a patient and caregivers and can interfere with their therapeutic relationship as well. It is important to understand that in a nursing home a great deal of intimate care takes place at the patient's bedside."
"Grannycam" advocates say that if nursing home personnel do nothing wrong they will have nothing to fear.
Critics say cameras will make it even harder to attract and retain qualified people in an industry where the work is demanding, pay is low, and the turnover rates high.
Hecht dismisses such arguments as scare tactics. She says many employees — bank tellers, for example — already work under constant surveillance. And, Hecht says, employees don't necessarily have a right to privacy on the job.
The Maryland delegate says a nursing-home resident's room is their home.Hecht says nursing home employees should understand that cameras are just another tool for improving the quality of care.
Bad Conditions and Penalties
The General Accounting Office reports that 25 percent of the nation's nursing homes have deficiencies that either cause actual harm to residents or carry the potential for serious injury or death. Even in cases where penalties were imposed on such facilities, says the GAO, improvements were often only temporary; many were again out of compliance by the time the next survey or follow-up inspection was conducted.
Another survey of 14 states released last year also found that state and federal complaint procedures are largely inadequate, in some cases leaving patients at risk of continued abuse and neglect for months.
Hecht first introduced her bill to the Maryland legislature last year, but it was referred for so-called "summer study" and was not put to a vote. She expects to have better luck this time. If the bill is voted out of committee she thinks it has a good chance of passing.
But the measure does face significant opposition: Most members of the state's task force on nursing homes are unlikely to support it.