Many suspicious deaths in nursing homes are never investigated because facilities commonly pass them off as the result of natural causes like age or medical conditions. In many cases, nursing homes conceal the cause of death to hide abuse and neglect. Cook County law requires that all accidental deaths be reported to the coroner.
Resident Fatalities in Nursing Homes
When a person dies at home, there is no need to move the body immediately. Many families take time to grieve and remain with the deceased for a period of time. Local laws often dictate time restraints to move a deceased person to a funeral home. However, when a person dies in a nursing home facility, it’s a very different situation. The death must be reported to proper authorities immediately. The death must be officially pronounced by someone of authority like a doctor, nurse, or coroner who fills out proper forms certifying the cause, time, and place of death. If a death is accidental in Illinois, the coroner must sign the death certificate.
If a nursing home death is suspicious, the law requires an investigation by a medical examiner or coroner. Unfortunately, the majority of deaths that occur in nursing homes are not investigated. Physicians often sign death certificates without personally investigating the circumstances surrounding a resident’s death. If death appears suspicious, many nursing homes try to conceal the circumstances because they fear investigations that could reveal abuse, neglect, or other violations.
In many suspicious death cases, improperly trained staff, neglect, and abuse lead to life-threatening falls, infections, illnesses, and injuries that could have been prevented with proper care. Determining whether a death was caused by nursing home neglect or abuse requires investigation by experienced, qualified medical experts. Some nursing homes cover up neglect and abuse by blaming the death on the resident’s failing health. The death certificate may list the official cause of death as “heart failure” when the actual underlying cause was malnutrition, bedsores, or internal injuries.
Illinois Nursing Home Deaths
In Cook County, the law requires an immediate investigation of any nursing home deaths that appear suspicious, but that doesn’t happen in many cases. Recently, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that at least one suspicious death per day was reported between August 2014 and October 2017. Reports showed that Cook County medical examiners only showed up for 56 percent of suicides and 23 percent of homicides. The Sun-Times investigation showed more than 15,000 reports of nursing home resident deaths between 2014 and 2017, but a medical examiner never showed up to investigate at least 12,303 deaths, later ruled as accidents or homicides.
Cook County officials blame the problem on a high rate of suspicious resident deaths in nursing homes, a lack of enforcement, and inadequate funding to get proper investigations done. The Sun-Times found a period of 130 days where not even one resident death was investigated by a medical examiner. Cook County officials are suggesting harsher rules and punishments for the department in charge. Without punishments such as fines or job terminations and suspensions, many medical examiners get away with not performing important investigations in suspicious nursing home resident deaths.
Illinois has a high rate of nursing home neglect and abuse complaints throughout the state:
- In St. Clair County, a Belleville nursing home resident was found dead and strapped to a wheelchair. Video surveillance showed the 85-year-old woman sitting alone in a hallway staring at a soda machine. Minutes later she was found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs. The owners of the facility received a $50,000 fine.
- In Winnebago County, an elderly man was transferred to a nursing home after leaving a hospital. Prior to admittance to the facility, doctors inserted a tracheostomy tube to help with the man’s breathing and gave specific care instructions. Nursing home staff did not follow instructions and the man died of his injuries. Parties settled out of court for $25,000.
- In Cook County, a 72-year-old man was transferred from a local hospital to a nursing home after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, renal failure, and brain abnormalities. While at the nursing home, he suffered extreme dehydration and malnutrition which complicated his original health problems. The man’s lawyers sued the nursing home and the case settled out of court for $315,000.
Illinois nursing homes fall under the supervision of the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). Many state inspection reports note incidents of nursing home neglect and abuse, as well as violence between residents that included kicking, hitting, pushing, and verbal abuse. In one reported incident, a resident pulled another resident out of her wheelchair causing a fractured shoulder. IDPH inspection reports also note problems with untrained and inadequate staff. In some cases, only four nurse’s aides provide care for up to 180 patients.