- Recently it was discovered that some nursing home residents in Massachusetts signed away important legal rights against the facilities
- Federal lawmakers are working on a new law to prevent this
- Know what you can do before and after a loved one moves into a nursing home
People get old. It's a fact of life. Often, senior citizens need some form of help with everyday life and they (or their families) turn to nursing homes for that help. Unfortunately, some of these seniors are being victimized by the very people they looked to for help - and they may not even know it.
Waiving Legal Rights
Recently, it was discovered that some residents of nursing homes in Massachusetts are signing away or "waiving" some important legal rights when moving into nursing homes. Specifically, they're signing papers in which they agree to arbitrate any disputes they may have with the nursing home, rather than filing lawsuits.
What's that mean? Basically, arbitration is an informal process where an impartial third party, called an "arbitrator," listens to both sides of a story and then decides who wins. More often than not, neither side has a lawyer.
Serious claims by seniors against nursing homes, such as claims of abuse and neglect, are settled out of court and usually for far less money than if the cases were decided by a judge or jury in court.
It's bad enough that seniors are mistreated or neglected in nursing homes, and it's equally sad that nursing homes use these arbitration agreements to "get off lightly" when caught in the act. Another unfortunate thing about this practice is that most seniors are signing these arbitration agreements without even knowing it. They're usually packed into a stack of admission papers and signed without being noticed.
The problem isn't isolated to Massachusetts. For example, William Kurth was a nursing home resident in Wisconsin. He broke his leg and suffered from ulcers during the last few months of his life. His family filed a lawsuit against the home, but the case was thrown out of court because Mrs. Kurth signed an arbitration agreement when she signed admission papers for her husband.
Nursing homes across the US are using arbitration clauses, perhaps because reports and incidents of abuse, neglect, and other deficiencies at nursing homes have been increasing for years.
These things have spurred action in Washington, D.C. The Fairness in Nursing Home Arbitration Act of 2009 is a proposed federal law that would ban the use of most arbitration clauses by nursing homes. Also, some states already have laws banning these clauses in nursing home contracts, and more states are thinking about passing such laws.
What You Can Do?
There are several things you can and should do to protect yourself or a loved one from these types of arbitration clauses:
Contact your representatives in the US House of Representatives and Senate and tell them you support the proposed federal ban on arbitration clauses
Contact your state lawmakers and ask them to pass a law banning these clauses in nursing home contracts
Carefully read every piece of paper you're asked to sign as part of an "admission" packet for a nursing home. If possible, family members of seniors should read the papers and be with their loved ones when they're signed. If you have any questions or don't understand something, and you're not satisfied with the nursing home's explanation, don't sign the papers. Ask an attorney to look at the papers
If you see an arbitration clause, think carefully before you sign. If you don't want to sign the agreement, but you want to reside at the nursing home, you may be able to negotiate a deal. Again, talk to an attorney if you have any questions or need help negotiating
If you're already in a nursing home, review your papers for an arbitration clause as soon as possible. If there is a clause, call your attorney immediately. You may be able to have the clause removed from the contract
If you or loved one has been abused or neglected, or there are other problems at the home making it unsafe or unhealthy, talk to an attorney before you agree to arbitrate the problem
Seniors should feel safe and be well-cared for while in nursing homes. When they're not, nursing homes should be held accountable to the fullest extent possible. They shouldn't be able to hide behind an arbitration clause that doesn't treat the victimized senior fairly.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can I get out of an arbitration clause without being asked to leave the nursing home?
- How do I file a report about suspected abuse and neglect at a nursing home?
- A nursing home offered my parents a substantial discount in rent if they agreed to sign an arbitration clause. Is that legal? Should we take the deal?