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Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law a bill on Friday that strengthens the range of penalties a state watchdog can impose on healthcare employees who conspire to cover up abuse or interfere with investigations by state police or enforcement agencies internal.
The legislation follows an investigative series by Capitol News Illinois, Lee Enterprises Midwest and ProPublica into rampant abuse and cover-ups at Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center, a state institution in southern Illinois that houses people with intellectual disabilities and of development and mental illness. The new law applies to employees of state institutions and privately run community agencies for people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses that operate under the oversight of the Illinois Department of Human Services and its Office of the Inspector General.
News organizations detailed how employees lied to investigators, leaked sensitive investigative details, retaliated against people who reported abuse, and tried to indoctrinate new workers into the culture of the cover-up. Employees who engaged in such actions made patient abuse cases difficult to prosecute, but rarely suffered serious consequences. IDHS Inspector General Peter Neumer suggested changing the law last year.
The new law allows OIG to report workers who engage in such misconduct to Illinois’ current health care provider registry, which would prevent them from working in any health care facility in the state.
The registry identifies any health care worker who has been prevented from working with vulnerable populations in any long-term care setting, such as state-run development centers or group homes. Under the earlier law, workers could be foreclosed because they were found to be engaged in financial exploitation; negligence considered gross; or physical or sexual abuse. The new law adds material obstruction of an investigation to the list of findings that can be reported to the registry, maintained by the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Pritzker signed the bill the same day the IDHS Inspector General released a 34-page report recommending a top-down analysis of all processes related to reporting abuse and neglect at Choate because at the moment there seem to be fundamental problems with all aspects of that system.
The OIG report referenced the beating of a developmentally disabled patient by Choate staff in December 2014 that was covered in news reports. Four mental health technicians have been charged with felonies in connection with the beating. Three of them pleaded guilty to failing to comply with state employee abuse reporting laws, and one Mark Allen, a mental health technician who was initially charged with felony aggravated battery, pleaded guilty to felony obstruction of justice.
The report found that at least eight people cooperated to obstruct the state police and OIG investigations. Few of the staff were forthcoming with details, although they later told investigators it was the worst case of abuse they had ever seen.
This was a textbook example of a code of silence, where staff try to protect each other from the consequences of their misconduct by remaining silent about what they have witnessed or lying to protect their colleagues, says the new report from the OIG. While Allen was eventually reported to the register after the inspector general found him responsible for the abuses, the other three were not. Even though they were criminally convicted of failing to report what they had witnessed and the Inspector General found that they had engaged in the cover-up, the previous law did not include obstruction as a reportable offence.
The new law is a much-needed reform that will provide additional protection for residents and hold accountable any bad actor who violates a resident’s or patient’s trust, Pritzker spokesperson Alex Gough said in a statement.
Governor Pritzker continues to take longstanding problems in Choate very seriously and remains committed to providing a safe and healthy living environment for every single person residing in the state’s care.
Neumer said in a statement on Monday that he is pleased the governor and lawmakers have backed the measure, which passed unanimously in both houses, because it serves as a strong deterrent to those who would engage in a silence-type code of conduct. where employees lie or withhold key facts from investigators in an attempt to protect themselves and/or their colleagues.
When employees cooperate fully and completely with the OIG’s investigation, it also enhances the OIG’s ability to uncover facts, which serves as an added deterrent to misconduct, he said.
IDHS Secretary Grace Hou noted in a letter to Neumer, included in the Inspector General’s report, that she too had supported the legislative change. This is one of several steps her department has taken to address conditions at Choate and the agency’s 12 other developmental centers and mental hospitals, the letter said.
In a statement, Marisa Kollias, a spokeswoman for IDHS, said a system-wide transformation of the agency’s facilities is already underway.
In March, Pritzker and Hou announced that more than 120 Choate residents, about half of the facilities’ population, would have to relocate for safety reasons. Residents and their guardians were given up to three years to find alternative placement, such as in a community foster home or other state-run facility.
In addition to the relocation of some Choates residents, the department has also hired a resident safety officer and is implementing other safety improvements.
Kollias noted that Hou asked the inspector general to lead the review of Choate last September, the same month that news organizations released the first in a series of reports on Choate.
The IDHS leadership remains deeply concerned by the events investigated and reported by the OIG, said Kollias. The report underlines the importance of actions IDHS has taken since the administration began, including substantially expanding training, hiring new staff and installing security cameras.
The inspector general has repeatedly called for security cameras to be installed at Choate and other IDHS facilities, but the department had previously said doing so was complicated by federal regulations. The department said late last week that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which partially funds its institutional care, has provided new guidelines that will allow cameras to be installed in indoor and common locations. The department, the statement said, will install them quickly.
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