NJ law increases requirements, decreases some fines in reporting of suspected abuse cases

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New Jersey
New Jersey

A new law in New Jersey increases reporting requirements for long-term care workers who suspect abuse or exploitation in their facilities but “inexplicably” reduces the maximum fine by 90% for individuals who don't report such incidents, according to a state provider organization.

“Peggy's Law,” named for a former assisted living resident, was signed by Gov. Chris Christie on Monday and will take effect 60 days after enactment. It requires caregivers, social workers, physicians, nurses and others who work in assisted living, skilled nursing and other residential care settings to report the suspected abuse or exploitation of residents to local law enforcement as well as the state ombudsman. The legislation sets time limits that vary based on the type of suspected abuse.

The law is named for Peggy Marzolla, who in 2010 was a 93-year-old resident of a Brandywine Living community in Brick, NJ. Marzolla, according to a press release from state Sens. Jim Holzapfel and Diane Allen, two of the bill's seven primary sponsors in its state Senate or General Assembly form, was taken to the hospital after the senior living community's staff said she had slipped on powder.

Marzolla's injuries reportedly included bruises and several broken bones, and she died two months after being admitted to the hospital. Her daughter, identified elsewhere as Maureen Persi, didn't believe the explanation the community's staff members have given her for the injuries and later started a campaign to stiffen state laws against elder abuse, the senators said.

“If an employee of one of these homes even has the slightest suspicion that something might be awry, it should be their duty to report it,” Holzapfel said.

A Brandywine Living representative told McKnight's Senior Living that the incident involving Marzolla was not abuse but that the company supports keeping residents save from abuse.

“Mrs. Marzolla's accident was unfortunate,” the representative said. “We have always supported the safety of our elderly population from abuse. This was not a case of abuse but an unfortunate accident.”

A lawsuit filed by Persi against Brandywine was settled out of court, according to media reports.

Health Care Association of New Jersey President and CEO Jon Dolan told McKnight's Senior Living that the law “does not change our reporting requirements in any significant manner.”

“Long-term care facilities — skilled nursing care centers and assisted living communities — are currently required to report incidents to the New Jersey Department of Health, and crimes must additionally be reported to law enforcement,” he said. “That is especially the case with the DOH when the potential for harm or actual serious bodily injury occurs. And law enforcement also is notified regarding serious injuries within two hours and other crimes within 24 hours. In our reading of this bill, it merely mirrors federal regulations.”

HCANJ is concerned that the maximum penalty for individuals who do not report suspected abuse or exploitation has been decreased, Dolan said. “Previous law subjected them to a potential $5,000 fine,” he said. “This new law was amended to reduce it to a maximum of $500. HCANJ actually prefers stiff penalties against frontline workers who fail to report suspected crimes against the residents entrusted with their care.”

Facilities where appropriate reporting does not occur are subject to a maximum fine of $2,500 under the new law.

The New Jersey provider organization opposed a previous version of the bill, Dolan said.

“When first introduced about seven years ago, Peggy's Law would have required immediate notification of law enforcement in the event of suspected abuse or exploitation against a nursing or assisted living facility resident,” he said. “We felt that unreasonable and suggested then that the timeframes for law enforcement notification be revised to mirror what is already set forth by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. As enacted, the new law simply codifies these time frames into New Jersey statute, namely within two hours if there is serious bodily injury and within 24 hours for all other suspected crimes.”

HCANJ also opposed the original legislation, Dolan said, because it was “quite broad” and would have required the immediate reporting of incidents that aren't considered crimes or that were being resolved by the facility, such as cases of lost clothing or property.

“Providers certainly wish to ensure the ability to handle minor issues quickly and without a burden to law enforcement unless an actual reportable crime, abuse or serious incident exists,” he said. “Of course, the facility would then notify law enforcement and state and federal laws to effectively deal with these situations.”

Dolan said the new law is based on amendments that HCANJ offered over the years.

The organization, he added, “maintains an open line of communication and has an excellent relationship with both DOH and the New Jersey ombudsman. As they work every day to make the safety and quality of life in long-term care facilities their paramount concern, we work in concert with them to see that our member facilities are educated and work cooperatively to report and resolve any allegations of abuse or criminal activity.”

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