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Who Cares?

Officials say oversight is improving New Mexico’s troubled nursing homes. The numbers and the lawsuits say otherwise

October 13, 2010, 1:00 am

To Henryetta Lewis, neither “nursing” nor “home” aptly describes the facility where she stayed for five months in 2008.

On March 28 of that year, Lewis, now 88, tripped and fell. She was at home in her second-floor apartment at Los Piñones, on the north side of Santa Fe and, on the way down, hit her head on a coffee table.

“I must have hit it hard because there was some paper on the table, and I could tell my head was bleeding,” Lewis tells SFR. Despite the wound to her head, Lewis, a retired secretary who lives alone, managed to crawl into her bedroom and use the phone. 

Tony Begg, Lewis’ downstairs neighbor (who, before the accident, often helped her with odd jobs around the house), says it wasn’t until after the paramedics had taken Lewis to Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center that he learned what had happened.

“I came to check out her apartment, and it was covered in blood,” Begg recalls. “Her bed was soaked with blood; there was blood everywhere. She must have been in a state of shock.”

At St. Vincent, Lewis was assigned a caseworker who recommended she go to Casa Real, a local nursing home. Lewis doesn’t recall having a say in the matter.

“I had no choice at all,” she says. “I didn’t know what was happening.”

The caseworker, Begg says, had told him Lewis would need approximately three weeks of rehabilitation at the nursing home. But those weeks stretched into months and, instead of improving, Lewis’ health only declined. 

A report, dated June 24, 2008, from Lewis’ doctor states that Lewis was hospitalized three times in her three months at Casa Real, had knee pain and relied on a wheelchair.

“She would like to get out of Casa Real,” the report reads. “Neighbor [Begg] is concerned about her pain management there…[Lewis] moans with movement.”

Lewis returned home shaken, still in a wheelchair and facing a $17,747 bill (she says she was never told that her insurance had lapsed).

The experience still haunts her. But at least she went home. Thousands of New Mexico’s elderly are likely to live out their lives in nursing homes, and approximately 12,000 currently reside in the state’s 68 long-term care facilities.

Like most states, New Mexico faces the problems of staff shortages and high turnover in these nursing homes—but at significantly higher rates.

Two of Santa Fe’s largest nursing homes—and eight others around the state—are owned by Cathedral Rock Management LP, a national nursing home corporation with a history of problems.

Tony Begg (right) is helping former nursing home resident Henryetta Lewis navigate a $17,747 bill for care she says only made her worse.
Credits: Alexa Schirtzinger

The state ranks No. 1 in the nation for the number of complaints per nursing home bed, according to the federal Administration on Aging. New Mexico also is near the top in several other categories, including the percentage of nursing home complaints related to abuse.

State and federal nursing home investigation reports also reveal a pattern of abuse, neglect and error. Much of that—even when witnessed by nursing home staff—goes unreported. 

And while New Mexico appears to have an impressively rigorous oversight process for its nursing homes, finding out more about the lives of these seniors is tricky: The state’s rigid privacy laws obscure many of this complex system’s inner workings.

“I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and I can tell you nothing has changed,” Dennis Steele, founder of nursing home comparison website Member of the Family, tells SFR. “There’s more oversight, but it doesn’t change the outcome.”

For nursing home residents, that outcome can translate into care that ranges from inattentive to negligent.

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