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Group says CCH won't recognize 'family council'

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River Falls, 54022

River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

Relatives of residents or former residents at Hudson's Christian Community Home claim the nursing home is dragging its feet in recognizing an advocacy group to oversee the rights of CCH residents.

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CCH Executive Director Dan Goodier, however, says there are some issues with the group. Even so, he said he is willing to meet with them face to face anytime, anywhere.

A group known as Hudson Eldercare Family Council wants to take on the responsibility of listening to family complaints and attempting to bring about improvements in the quality of care and life for residents at CCH and Pine Ridge.

Charles Ladd, an organizer and active member of the family council, said CCH has resisted the group's attempt for about two years and says it is time that the public understands the struggle. He sees the CCH actions as an attempt by the nursing home to silence family members who have been critical of the nursing home's care.

In organizing a family council, Ladd and his group seems to have the support of Wisconsin's Board on Aging and Long-Term Care. The board is a state advocacy organization for various elements of long-term care. The organization investigates complaints and often mediates issues at local nursing care facilities.

William Donaldson, a Madison attorney for the board on aging, said his organization is very supportive of the family council concept. The idea surfaced in 1987 when Congress passed the Nursing Home Reform Act. The idea behind the family council is that an independent organization is available to handle complaints and issues surrounding nursing home care.

Donaldson said it is a good way to handle complaints because sometimes family members feel uneasy about complaining to the nursing home staff.

"We are very supportive of this idea," Donaldson said. "We like to see functional, contributing family councils to deal with problems and be involved in the solutions."

To date, however, there are only 12-15 true family councils among Wisconsin's 420 nursing homes.

Marti Sanville, a long-term ombudsman in the Wisconsin's Board on Aging and Long-Term Care regional office in Eau Claire, said there are many more family councils in Minnesota where the organizations are supported by a bed tax.

"Many nursing homes in Wisconsin claim they have family councils, but they are nothing more than a handpicked group selected by the nursing home," Sanville said.

Donaldson also said it is important that the councils be independent.

"In fact, the law says that it is not permissible for a nursing home, by definition, to start a council," Donaldson said. "It would be like an employer sponsoring a union."

In a recent letter, Donaldson wrote, "The law requires that efforts to organize and operate such groups be unimpeded and that the groups should not be under the control or influence of the facility administration."

One obstacle that surfaces in starting a new family council, however, is that the impetus to start a group is often inspired by disgruntled family members. Goodier would not say that is the case in Hudson, but it is a known fact that some local members of the Hudson Eldercare Family Council, have issues with CCH. Norman Matzek, Family Council chair, has been the target of a restraining order from CCH. His visiting time at CCH has been restricted. That case is still pending and will not be settled until later this year. Ladd's elderly parents have been residents of the CCH multi-facility campus for the past 17 years.

Donaldson said, however, that the council concept is still good, even if it begins with a disgruntled family member.

"They often start that way, but if it's done right, it will evolve into a cooperative relationship," Donaldson said. "Councils are not intended to be a thorn or irritation for the nursing home."

Goodier has concerns about the bylaws of the proposed group.

"The group has an exclusion in membership; it is not open to all families of all residents," Goodier said.

The apparent stumbling block is a bylaw rule that prohibits potential involvement of board members or employees on the council. Goodier said many of those people have family members in CCH and yet they are not allowed on the council.

He is also objects to the inclusion of Pine Ridge (an assisted living facility) in council matters. The statute provides for nursing homes only.

"For whatever reason, we have been unable to find common ground with the people interested in forming a family council," Goodier said. "I'm willing to meet with them anytime."

Goodier said the vast majority of residents and families are very happy with the current system of discussing issues. He said a "family night" is scheduled quarterly. All families are welcome to those meetings and, of course, are welcome to discuss problems any time.

"Most family members are able to solve any issues directly," Goodier said. "In reality, we have an excellent facility here and our residents and families are happy. If they have an issue we are more than willing to discuss it."

Citation rescinded

The Wisconsin Bureau of Quality Assurance, the agency responsible for licensing and overseeing the operation of nursing homes in Wisconsin, handed CCH a violation on July 21 for the home's role related to resisting the organization and formation of a family council. The citation seemed to add fuel to the fire that the proposed family council was being crowded out of the process. The citation, however, was appealed and in late August, the bureau rescinded the violation - a blow to the Hudson Eldercare Family Council.

Goodier said CCH officials disagreed with the citation and scheduled an informal dispute hearing.

"The violation was withdrawn on merit," Goodier said. "That's not something the state does lightly."

In the minds of Ladd and other council organizers, however, they believe the violation was valid and overturned on a technicality. The group is appealing the repeal at the national level.

He reiterated the fact that the idea behind a council is that it be an independent group and not include officials or staff of a nursing home.

"If people have a complaint, they have to feel they can make their concerns known to an independent party," Ladd said. "It is hard to complain to the people who are taking care of your loved ones."

Another council member, Michael Mayer, said the council's duties also include educating families regarding resident rights, providing ongoing support and working as an advocate for positive change.

Ladd is of the opinion that CCH not only has chosen not to recognize its family council, but also has increasingly taken actions to thwart the council's activities. He said it's a violation of both the spirit and letter of current federal and state eldercare law.

The state still encourages the organization of family councils, but with the citation rescinded from the Wisconsin Bureau of Quality Assurance, it appears that the Hudson Eldercare Family Council has no legal leg on which to stand. The conflict, however, continues. The local council may have lost the battle of the citation, but it could still be a long, long war.

Doug Stohlberg can be reached at hsoeditor@rivertowns.net

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