Sunday, February 20, 2011

Life Care Center faced manslaughter charges in Massachusetts

Acton, Mass. — There are a few facts almost everyone agrees on surrounding the death of Julia McCauley.

On the morning of Aug. 17, 2004, McCauley, 74, rolled her wheelchair unattended out the front door of the Life Care Center of Acton, where she had been a resident for five years, and tumbled down a flight of stairs. She died a short time later.

McCauley, who had approached the doors of the 1 Great Road facility before, was not wearing a doctor-prescribed WanderGuard bracelet designed to set off an alarm and lock the doors if McCauley got too close to the exit.

But that’s where the common ground ends for Life Care Center officials and Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Coakley’s office believes that McCauley’s death could have been avoided had she been wearing her electronic bracelet and that the nursing home’s parent company, Life Care Centers of America, is culpable.

But Life Care Center officials deny any wrongdoing and argue that McCauley’s death, though a tragedy, was an unfortunate accident in a long-term care facility striving to provide the best possible care.

Life Care officials also argue prosecuting the corporation could also cause a backlash against nursing homes, hospitals and other health care facilities where accidents inevitably occur.

The corporation is charged with manslaughter and neglect of a long-term care facility resident. The trial begins March 9 at Middlesex Superior Court.

“We think it’s an important case,” said Harry Pierre, a spokesman for Coakley’s office. “Our lawyers are prepared to prosecute the case.”

If convicted, the Tennessee-based corporation could face fines of up to $6,000.

But Life Care officials said they are confident heading into next week’s trial.

“Julia McCauley was a beloved member of our community and a part of our family. At the end of the day, her death was an accident, not a crime,” said Rob Alderman, Life Care’s director of public relations. “We are looking forward very much to having our good name cleared.”

Life Care operates more than 200 facilities in 28 states, including several that have come under scrutiny in the past.

In 2005, the company paid $2.5 million to resolve allegations of billing Medicaid and Medicare for services that were never provided or were useless to the residents of a Lawrenceville, Ga., facility.

And the Acton facility has been the target of state and federal fines in the past.

The facility was fined $2,112 in the fall of 2005 and $11,147 in December 2006 for various deficiencies found during routine state checks.

In July 2007, state and federal regulators imposed fines totaling more than $164,000 for deficiencies that jeopardized residents’ safety. But the fines were rescinded after a more extensive investigation.

Alderman said the Acton home has addressed all the deficiencies found in the state inspections, which has improved the facility.

“The question is do we get up every single day and decide to make the facility better than it was the day before, and that’s the case in Acton,” he said. “Acton is absolutely on top of it. It’s a great place to be.”

The case against Life Care Center is possibly one of only two instances where the commonwealth has charged a corporation with manslaughter.

In August 2007, the commonwealth charged the company that supplied epoxy used in the Big Dig with manslaughter after a Jamaica Plain woman was killed when a ceiling panel in the Interstate 90 Connector Tunnel fell on her car. That case was settled last December.

Coakley also held a press conference last week to announce her support for legislation to increase the maximum fine for a corporation convicted of manslaughter from $1,000 to $250,000.

The $1,000 fine was enacted in 1819 and needed to be updated, Coakley said in the Feb. 26 press conference.

If the Legislature approves the change in law, it would not apply retroactively to the Life Care case.

But Alderman questioned the timing Coakley’s press conference, a week and a half before the start of the trial.

“The timing was rather odd for this announcement with the upcoming trial,” said Alderman. “We believe the people of the great commonwealth have to ask themselves the question ‘What’s motivating the attorney general and who stands to benefit from the case?’”

Pierre denied any connection in the timing of Coakley’s announcement and the start of the Life Care trial.

“I can say there’s no correlation between when the case is starting and our announcement,” he said. “We felt the law needed updating and we felt this was a good place to start.”

Life Care Center faces manslaughter trial date - Acton, MA - The Beacon

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