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A Message to Hungry Seniors: Turn Off Fox News and the Shame of Accepting Benefits

Fox news off

I read a troubling statistic the other day that I couldn’t shake so I did some digging.

Only about one-third of senior citizens who are eligible for SNAP benefits (food stamps) are using the benefit.  I wondered why.  Don’t they know they’re eligible?  Are they daunted by the application process they believe they’ll have to go through?  Are they ashamed?

It seems all these factors come into play but the biggest one is that seniors report feeling ashamed of using these benefits.  After spending a lifetime supporting themselves, it’s simply too demeaning to accept help with buying food.  And to prop up those feelings of guilt and shame, we have Fox News.

Last year, Fox News aired The Great Food Stamp Binge in an effort to convince us that America’s SNAP recipients are taking advantage of the system.  True to the Fox brand, Bret Baier cited one of their Fox News Polls (I’m really not kidding) as proof, stating that  “57% of people feel food stamp recipients are taking advantage of the system and not truly in need.”   To further prove their facts (overkill considering that scientific poll of how their viewers felt) they featured a California beach bum who bragged about receiving $200 per month in food stamps.  (Fox doesn’t like to use the term SNAP benefits because it lacks the shame they feel should be attached to using benefit programs.  They’re working hard on changing that).

Baier followed Beach Bum to his specialty grocery where he used his SNAP benefit to buy lobster.  They went on to label this guy “the new face of food stamps” and spent most of remainder of this hard-hitting journalistic feat tailing Beach Bum to the surf, a barbecue with friends, and playing music with his band.  (There was no shortage of camera focus on a scantily clad woman dancing in the background, a famous Fox News staple).  They searched and searched for his shame but could find none in this stoner.  Aha!  This proved the other point they had set out to make.  That people on food stamps not only were lazy, they weren’t even ashamed about being lazy.

Using this beach bum to represent SNAP recipients is as ridiculous as using Fox News Reports as representations of journalism.

Actually, the new face of food stamp recipients happens to be workers of full time jobs who are not paid adequately to feed their families.  The new face also includes all those people who have lost jobs since our economic meltdown and remain un- or under- employed.  They include our elderly on fixed social security incomes, many of whom are also raising grandchildren.

Their story wasn’t meant to enlighten anyone.  It was pure agitprop, (now if that word’s not as handy as a pocket in a shirt…) aimed at conservative followers eager for fodder to defend their position that cutting benefit programs is good for the poor, good for our country, and really doesn’t hurt anyone.

One unfortunate effect this kind of propaganda leaves is that it keeps our SNAP eligible elderly from applying for benefits they need.

Fifty percent of Fox News viewers are over the age of 68.  They are the ones watching this dribble and also the ones hit the hardest by food insecurity.  Skipping meals might be just fine for many of us but for elderly people who tend to eat smaller meals and take multiple medications, it can be disastrous.  In addition to skipping meals, they are missing doses of medication and keeping their homes inadequately heated or cooled to make ends meet.

Let’s talk about who should really be feeling shame for taking from America.  Verizon, GE, and Boeing all paid zero, zilch, not-a-dime in income taxes between 2008 and 2011 even though they made billions of dollars in profits.  SHAME ON THEM!

In addition to these tax evaders, (or avoiders if evader sounds too harsh) there are all those wealthy corporations who pay their employees so poorly, they must rely on SNAP benefits to feed their families.  While McDonalds provides advice to their employees on where to sign up for government benefits, their CEO gets paid over $10 million per year.  Walmart behaves pretty much the same with low pay and benefit avoidance while their CEO is paid over $20 million.  When News Corp, owner of Fox News, avoided paying income taxes on their multi-billion dollar corporation, owner Rupert Murdoch was billed a tax code genius.  SHAME ON THEM!

Here’s the deal, seniors.  About feeling ashamed over food stamps; stop it!  About Fox News; turn it off and keep it off!   If you’re having trouble making ends meet, seek out the benefits that are available to you.  If you need these benefits, you deserve these benefits.  It’s as simple as that.

As for how to apply for benefits, AARP has a Public Benefits Guide for each state that can be accessed here.

Under The Whitewash: Is Your Loved One Safe In A Nursing Home?

You would think that someone who reads about elder abuse and neglect on a daily basis would stop seeing red after a while.  Yesterday, however, while reading an account of nursing home neglect that resulted in a death, I was struck by a statement from an Illinois official responsible for regulating nursing homes that was so out of touch with reality that my fingers shook as I hit the keys on my laptop to respond.

An investigative piece by NBC Chicago5 tells the sad story of Joseph Karney, a Chicago man who moved into The Renaissance Park South nursing home in 2005 after having a stroke and heart attack. Joseph was later diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancer and placed on a medication to which he was responding well. Over time, his sister noticed he was failing. They investigated and learned that the nursing home had failed to give him his cancer drug for almost a year and hadn’t taken him for follow-up appointments with his oncologist. It was too late. Joseph’s cancer had spread and he died. The investigative report included an analysis of Illinois Department of Public Health data where state health inspectors documented 384 nursing home medication errors since 2011. These errors resulted in two deaths and an amputation. Full story here.  http://www.nbcchicago.com/investigations/Nursing-Home-Medication-Errors-Leading-to-Hospitalizations-243618471.html

Here’s what Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, the head of Illinois Department of Public Health (Illinois’ nursing home regulatory and oversight agency) said about these errors:

“You’re going to have errors, unfortunately. But we hope that there are no errors due to negligence,” said IDPH director LaMar Hasbrouck, MD.

So this is where my blood begins to simmer. Are you kidding me, Dr. Hasbrouck?  Where have you been? You do know that Illinois nursing homes, based on inspection data, have an F grade on Nursing Home Report Cards, right?  http://nursinghomereportcards.com/

Do you know that Illinois ranks dead last in direct care staffing hours? Those are the people who pass medications and provide care to residents in your nursing homes.

Still simmering, I read on because, of course, we’ve still got to hear from the well-paid talking head from IHCA (Illinois Health Care Association, a state trade organization for nursing home corporations). Mr. Vrba, whose main job is to put lipstick on pigs, tosses in this red herring about medication errors in an effort to make the public think, “Oh yeah. I mean, that could happen to anybody.”

Facility staff members are also using TALL MAN letters, Vrba said, to differentiate look-alike drug names. For example, noting predniSONE as opposed to prednisoLONE.

TALL MAN letters! A man went without his cancer medication for a year and Mr. Vrba wants us to believe that it’s because the staff wasn’t using their latest best practice named TALL MAN letters.

So what kind of letters should have been used so that the nursing home staff would have noticed that Joseph didn’t get his cancer medication–FOR A YEAR? Are there special letters or numbers that would have ensured he was taken in for his follow-up oncology appointments?

Perhaps the problem lies a bit below the surface here, at a depth that the likes of Mr. Vrba never want us to reach. Let’s take a look at Medicare’s Nursing Home Compare Website and see what’s up with Renaissance Park South. http://www.medicare.gov/nursinghomecompare/profile.html#profTab=0&ID=145764&loc=CHICAGO%2C%20IL&lat=41.8781136&lng=-87.6297982&name=RENAISSANCE%20PARK%20SOUTH

We learn they’re a for-profit nursing home owned by several players who run other substandard nursing homes in Illinois. They have a 1 star rating for both Staffing and Health Inspections. A one star rating by CMS (Center for Medicare Services) on this site means Much Below Average.  It’s as low as they go.  There have been a total of 6 complaint inspections in 2013 alone with repeated deficiencies related to poor staff training, abuse and neglect, and lack of therapeutic programs for residents with mental illness.

One of Renaissance’s owners, David Hartman, also owns Symphony of Crestwood, Illinois. Sadly, the name is the only nice thing about this nursing home. Data from Nursing Home Compare show us that Symphony is plagued with many of the same problems as Renaissance.  Poor staffing, neglect, use of chemical restraints (over-drugging residents to keep them quiet), failure to provide activity programs, failure to report theft, and failure to prevent pressure ulcers to name a few. The most egregious finding was in a complaint inspection report from last July, 2013:

Based on interview and record review facility failed to ensure necessary treatment to promote healing and prevent infection of a wound for one (R1) of three residents reviewed for pressure ulcers. Failure to provide dressing changes as ordered, resulted in R1’s right foot harboring purulent drainage with maggots on the wound.

Maggots in a wound in what is supposed to be a health care facility! This lack of care goes beyond any dribble about nursing error. This is absolute and blatant negligence that begs for public outrage over this less than Third World level of care.

I must admit though, of all the inspection reports and comments I read yesterday, this statement by Dr. Hasbrouck,  blew my blood pressure beyond the pale. Keep in mind, Dr. Hasbrouck is director of nursing home oversight in Illinois so common sense would suggest that he is on the side of protecting nursing home residents.

“Safety and quality of care is a collective responsibility,” Hasbrouck said. “The family has a responsibility to do their due diligence.”

Family responsibility?  Is he suggesting that Joseph’s family is to blame for putting him in this substandard nursing home that receives his agency’s stamp of approval to remain open? Guess who the usual suspects are when it comes to calling in nursing home complaints.  Families!

Do you know how many families across Illinois, across our country, need to make sure someone checks on their loved one each day just to make sure they’re fed and not soaking in their waste?

What about all those people who don’t have families or are estranged from their families?  Everyone deserves decent and humane care.  No exceptions!   And substandard care is never the fault of grieving family members who are floundering through our system, begging for someone to care about what is happening in nursing homes.

What about your responsibility, Dr. Hasbrouck? I believe part of your job description as director of Illinois’ Department of Public Health would be to enforce nursing home regulations that have been put in place to protect our most vulnerable citizens?

How do you suggest citizens do their due diligence?   How can we protect our vulnerable brothers and sisters from the kind of human neglect that results in maggots infesting their wounds?  Help us understand how is it that public money continues to flow into the hands of nursing home owners who accept that money as their entitlement while their nursing homes flounder?

Channel 5’s news piece provides us all with a perfect example of the deplorable care given in many of our nursing homes.  The players in this story show us why it won’t change anytime soon.

Even when someone does speak out, as Joseph’s sister did, and even when their voice is heard by many, change doesn’t result.  Instead, the guilty deflect the blame. Wealthy nursing home corporations blame reimbursement, government officials deny the seriousness of the problem and, in this case, lay the blame at the feet of families who choose homes that provide poor care.   The nursing home industry invents some shiny new “campaign for excellence” developed for the sole purpose of lulling the public back to sleep with visions of things like TALL MAN letters.

And while we sleep, nursing home corporate owners get richer, their ‘perception managers’ get slicker, and government oversight becomes more and more impotent.

Citizens of Illinois, I suggest you follow the advice of Dr. Hasbrouck and do your due diligence.  Do it by banding together and demanding reform and transformation of this mess we’re all paying for called nursing home care.

America’s Shame: Trafficking Our Elderly

For most people, the term human trafficking conjures up images of ethnic young people controlled by sleazy handlers who buy and sell them for sex or labor.  We might hear about human trafficking ring leaders that have been arrested and sentenced to long prison terms for their heinous acts.

There’s another practice of human trafficking that goes largely ignored even though it happens daily, sometimes right under our noses.  The traffickers don’t hide from the law because the law is either on their side, as in the case of guardianship and conservatorship abuse, or because, even when these offenders are caught, the human trafficking component is ignored by authorities.  I’m talking about the use and abuse of our elderly who are sought out for their Medicare/Medicaid dollars.  Their predators are doctors, nursing home corporations, hospitals, and long-term care pharmacies.

The schemes are all fairly similar.  You need an unscrupulous doctor who is willing to admit patients into hospitals, order unnecessary tests, transfer them to a nursing home, and write prescriptions for as many pharmaceuticals as their poor bodies can manage.  Authorities uncovered one such scheme in Chicago.  The players were Dr. Roland Borrasi, Rabbi Morris and Philip Esformes, corrupt father/son nursing home corporation operators, an Illinois psychiatric hospital, and two acute care hospitals.  The Chicago Tribune covered this human brokering scheme which you can read here and here.

The Esformes, Dr. Borrasi, and hospital administrators colluded to shuttle patients among their facilities for the purpose of filling their beds and maximizing Medicare reimbursements. Hospital administrators paid Borrasi to admit elderly nursing home residents into hospitals for costly, unnecessary tests and treatments.  In turn, Borrasi paid Morris Esformes for the use of his nursing home residents. One of Borrasi’s associates alleged he was with Borrasi in March 2001 when Esformes called and told Borrasi to admit at least five nursing home patients to various hospitals. Borrasi did so without question.  Borrasi was recorded by federal agents as he spoke to a fellow doctor in his practice, “Basically, I have a commodity; my commodity is nursing home patients.”

In 2010, Borrasi was sentenced to 6 years in a Kentucky federal prison.  Today he resides in a RRM (Residential Reentry Management) facility in Chicago with a scheduled release date of June 7, 2014.  According to the Illinois Dept. of Financial &Professional Regulation, Borrasi’s physician and controlled substance licenses were suspended in May, 2010 “due to convictions of conspiracy and offering and receiving bribes, related to patient referrals.”  What happens if he applies for reinstatement?

The Esformes were named in the scheme, denied any involvement, and, as in the past, escaped without charges.  In 2005, Rabbi Esformes played the religion card when he was facing charges of abuse and neglect for abominable conditions in his Chicago nursing homes.  He said of city and state officials, “Beside the fact that they’re anti-mental health and anti-black, they’re probably anti-Jew because I’m an ordained rabbi.”  Oy vey.

Last August, facing a jury trial, the Esformes agreed to pay $5 million to the Justice Department to settle charges of a pharmacy sale kickback scheme with Omnicare.  Omnicare had already paid their fine.  Once again, the Esformes are free to move forward with nothing more than a wrist slap and a fine that, for them, is simply the cost of doing business. They continue full participation with our Medicare/Medicaid programs. Despicable.

The Esformes own EMI Enterprises which, according to Bloomberg Business, owns and operates nursing homes, retirement centers, and assisted living facilities in Illinois and Florida. The company is based in Lincolnwood, Illinois.  Their facilities have a long history of poor care and serious deficiencies.

We’ll never know how many nursing home residents were abused at the hands of these vile people.  We know about an elderly woman who was sent from one of their nursing homes to a psychiatric hospital because she refused to go to the facility dining room to eat her dinner.  I wonder how much Esformes got for her.  We know about the elderly man with dementia who Borrasi sent to a participating hospital to undergo inappropriate brain radiation treatments.  But what about all the ones who suffered that we don’t know about?  How many people were left with no quality of life because they were filled with antipsychotic drugs?  How many old people spent days confused and afraid as they were shifted from facility to facility, pawns in this shell game run by a group of health professionals who profited from these healthcare atrocities?  How many people died from this horrific arrangement of moving and drugging and gratuitous procedures?   This scheme went on for years and elderly patients were shuffled around like pieces on a chess board.

Understanding that what they did was wrong and feeling outraged is a cakewalk.  The more difficult task it accepting the lack of punishment for these crimes.  Why weren’t the perpetrators charged with human trafficking and elder abuse along with charges of fraud?   They all deserved harsh prison sentences, monetary penalties, and suspensions from any future dealings with our Medicare system to ensure they couldn’t repeat their crimes.  To this day, after years of providing shoddy care, Morris Esformes enjoys the fruits of his abuses.

This scheme wasn’t the first of its kind and it certainly will not be the last.  Until our public health officials ban providers who abuse our citizens or defraud our system, our elderly and vulnerable citizens can expect much more abuse in the future and we can expect to see our public health dollars funnel into the dirty pockets of the abusers.