Jennifer Loren, Oklahoma Impact Team
Nurses who used to work at Rest Haven Nursing Home in Tulsa describe it as a house of horrors.
"There was verbal abuse, physical abuse, lots of things reported," said Rita Rodriguez, a former nurse at Rest Haven.
She says Rest Haven was an unsafe environment that, even after complaints, never got better. She listed some of the worst offenses.
"The rats, the roaches, the filth," said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez had been a nurse at Rest Haven for a couple of years when another veteran nurse, Toby Dale, began working there this year.
"I've seen patients that were covered in maggots, that you know was taken to the showers, tub area, and put into a vat of water with half a cup of bleach and dipped, kind of like a dog," said Dale.
Both nurses say Rest Haven was the worst nursing home they've ever worked in and say it should have been shut down years ago. They called the Oklahoma Impact Team after they were fired from Rest Haven, they say, for alerting the state to patient abuse.
"They really don't care about the residents," said Dale. "They just, they belittle them. They make fun of them. They talk about them. They cuss them."
"It was just a whole lot of patient abuse that never was dealt with," said Rodriguez.
Inside Rest Haven, nursing home staff told our undercover producers Rest Haven was a happy place where residents were well taken care of. But the hallways and facilities were dirty and smelly and at one point, an employee blocked off a patient room to keep our producers from looking inside.
You don't have to go inside to see there are problems. We combed through thousands of documents on a little-known state website, where the Department of Protective Health files its investigative reports.
Complaints at Rest Haven show one resident had his hand slammed in a door on purpose and felt he was going to be "jumped" by employees. That same report shows another man was kept in involuntary seclusion because nurses said he was gay. There are numerous reports, including citizen police reports, about pain medication stolen by staff… and reported nights when staff left patients unattended and smoked pot, drank alcohol and even had sex in the parking lot.
The owner of Rest Haven says those complaints are not true and he's currently disputing them with the state. He admits Rest Haven had problems and says he was forced to fire its long-time administrator. But he says the people in that home were extremely difficult to care for and the staff he was able to hire was, "rough." He also pointed out that many of those complaints came from employees and not from residents themselves.
But residents many times will not report problems to the state for fear of retaliation. State-appointed Ombudsman Sarah Strecker is an advocate for nursing home residents. She says, sadly, some of the problems at Rest Haven are problems in nursing homes everywhere.
"You know when staff isn't properly trained you're going to run into some issues and residents sometimes have some hard problems they have to deal with," said Strecker.
Citizen advocate Wes Bledsoe isn't buying it.
"This is crazy," he said. "We have people suffering and dying in our nursing homes in this state right now."
Bledsoe lost his grandmother to nursing home neglect and has been fighting for solutions ever since, bringing lawmakers face to face with abuse victims. He says the state continues to fail.
"The absurdity is just outrageous," Bledsoe said.
Bledsoe runs an organization called A Perfect Cause, with a mission to "end needless suffering and preventable deaths." Bledsoe hopes citizens will contact their state legislator and demand change. He thinks Oklahoma should adopt a single, umbrella agency like a Department of Aging which, he says, has been successful in other states.
There are five state agencies with the power to investigate nursing homes, but not a single one has the power to remove employees or close down a facility for ongoing problems. The state can stop facilities from receiving Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements, which can be burdensome enough to force a facility to close, but not necessarily.
At Rest Haven, the state has investigated 33 different complaints of abuse or neglect in the last two years. When the state did punish the home, it handed down fines and accepted correction plans to put employees through additional training.
The director of the state agency that fined Rest Haven says her department has done the best it can with the resources it has. Plus, she says she doesn't think it's her role to tell nursing home administrators who to hire and fire or how to run their facilities.
"I don't think that's my role," said Dorya Huser, Director of the Department of Protective Health Services, a division of the Oklahoma Department of Health. "I think if they're in this business they should be able to know what they need to do to have a well-run facility and to take care of these residents."
Wes Bledsoe says it's that sort of attitude that's left countless nursing home residents vulnerable to abuse and neglect.
"And what are we doing about it?" asked Bledsoe. "Nothing's changed. What changed for those people that you looked at Rest Haven? Where are those changes at? And that's just one facility. There's a lot more out there like that."
During the course of our investigation Rest Haven closed, but not because anyone told them to. The owner claims that facility was no longer profitable. He also suggested the nurses in our story have an axe to grind.
The Next Step
We asked Governor Mary Fallin to weigh in on our findings. She released this statement:
"When my elderly mother got sick, I became her legal guardian and assumed responsibility for taking care of her. As her condition deteriorated, I moved her into a long term care facility so that she could get the medical attention she needed. I know from personal experience how important it is, not just for our seniors but for their families and loved ones as well, that our long term care facilities are safe, professionally run, and well-equipped to keep residents as healthy and comfortable as possible."
"Any reports of unsanitary conditions, abuse or neglect at these facilities are troubling. While I believe the vast majority of Oklahoma's long term care centers and employees are well-intentioned, competent professionals, we have seen instances where that is not the case. I am always ready to work with our state agencies and other lawmakers to improve the quality, safety and oversight of our long term care centers." – Governor Mary Fallin
If you are looking to place a loved one in a nursing home, it would be a good idea to contact the Oklahoma Ombudsman's Office. Representatives have many free resources that could help you make the right decision. Call (405) 521-6734.
If you'd like to file a complaint about a nursing home, there are the five state agencies that can investigate:
Oklahoma Ombudsman: (405) 521-6734
DHS: Adult Protective Services: (405) 521-3660
Department of Protective Health Services: (405) 271-6868
State Board of Examiners for Long Term Care Administrators: (405) 522-1616