The head of the Arizona Department of Health released new information about why the agency failed to investigate hundreds of high-profile cases of abuse and neglect over the years in long-term care facilities during a special hearing in the Arizona House of Representatives on Thursday.
“I’m not here to give excuses, I’m here to give answers and show that we are honest,” Don Herrington, who served as the agency’s director for nearly a year, told a group of stakeholders and lawmakers.
The House Committee on Vulnerable Elder Abuse and Neglect was established after Hacienda Healthcare rape casewhile a woman with persistent vegetative state was found to have been repeatedly raped and impregnated by a male nurse at the facility.
Thursday’s meeting repeated much of what was discussed in the House and Senate hearings last month. Apparently frustrated lawmakers shot Harrington for hours on a report from state auditors that found the department had failed to properly investigate cases.
“I find my anger has not diminished at all,” Rep. Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix, said at the beginning of the meeting about reviewing the equipment.
The Auditor General’s report found that ADHS “extended” the time it took to respond to serious complaints by almost a year.
The first study was completed in September 2019 and none of the five recommendations made by the auditors were fulfilled by the next report of this year, according to the testimony from the Deputy Auditor General Melanie Chesney.
Instead, investigators found that the most important cases were often closed without investigation.
On average, investigators found that the department consistently failed to initiate an investigation within 10 days for major cases, which took 11 to 476 working days. The department told investigators that staff shortages and the outbreak were the reason they were unable to initiate investigations in time.
Harrington also addressed the staff’s concerns during Thursday’s meeting, saying he and the auditor general “didn’t agree” that COVID-19 had played a role in how they investigated the cases.
“(Long-term care facilities) were the most vulnerable places in the world for people to get COVID,” Harrington said, adding that, in the early days of the epidemic, there was no vaccine and no personal protective equipment (PPE) for ADHS. workers or long-term caregivers.
In the early days, whenever ADHS received PPE, the agency would provide long-term care facilities and hospitals instead of staffing them, making it difficult for them to make site visits, Harrington said. It wasn’t until May 2020, two months into the outbreak, that the department began to re-enter the facility, out of fear that an asymptomatic ADHS employee could infect the entire facility, Harrington said.
“We were doing a lot of safety and equipment control at the time,” Harrington said, adding that the COVID vaccine was not available until December 2020.
In addition, staffing was a major problem since ADHS used nurses to conduct research – but hospitals, which had already built nurses during the epidemic, were paying very high prices and the organization could not hire people.
“We haven’t been competitive,” Harrington admitted to the committee, adding that it took until last month for ADHS to increase hiring incentives, including raising wages for RNs and PAs.
Harrington was unable to respond to questions from Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma, who asked if the department had done anything “outside the box,” like inspections, to make sure it was trying to monitor during the pandemic.
MPs also wanted to know what would happen with cases that were not investigated.
“I can’t deal with what happened in the past,” Harrington said, adding that they are trying to investigate what they can but several members of the administration and those responsible for the crimes are no longer with the department.
“These are people, not reports, and we don’t treat them that way,” Longdon said, breaking into tears as Dunn laid a comforting hand on him. “The people in these places are the most vulnerable in our society.”
The committee agreed to continue with the recommendations of the previous committee and the department and the Auditor General will have a follow-up report in 6 months due to the “difficulty” of the report.