Westminster Towers cited for not reporting patient abuse

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comSeptember 21, 2013 

— The state Department of Health and Environmental Control this month cited Westminster Towers Continuing Care Retirement Community for not reporting a patient abuse allegation a year ago.

The retirement and nursing home center on India Hook Road didn’t comply with state regulations requiring it to report any allegation of suspected abuse to DHEC, officials said last month. DHEC did not fine the facility because of the violation.

DHEC regulates and provides oversight for all South Carolina nursing homes and retirement communities. Agency policies require nursing homes aware of a suspected abuse allegation to report it to DHEC within 10 days of the alleged incident.

But, according to DHEC, Westminster Towers never reported an allegation made against a male employee accused of slapping an elderly female resident on the buttocks while changing her clothes.

In January, an anonymous caller told Rock Hill police that Fort Mill’s John Carl Williams, a certified nursing assistant at Westminster, had been fired for allegedly abusing a 71-year-old woman.

The caller told police an employee walked in on Williams abusing the patient and reported the allegation to administrators, who subsequently fired him. The caller was concerned that the suspected abuse had never been reported to authorities.

Police began an investigation but in March turned the case over to the state Attorney General’s office’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, which investigates allegations of physical abuse or embezzlement of funds from patients who live at facilities that receive Medicaid funding.

Last month, the Attorney General’s office charged Williams, 49, with abuse of a vulnerable adult. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

Efforts to reach Williams have been unsuccessful.

According to arrest warrants, the incident happened in September 2012, almost four months before police were notified.

Authorities would not say what led to the charge against Williams, but documents obtained by The Herald under the state’s Freedom of Information Act show that DHEC examined the resident’s medical records while investigating the incident.

Staff files, internal incident forms, internal investigation notes and policies and procedures were also reviewed by an inspector, who visited the facility on Aug. 16.

The Herald reported the suspected abuse on Aug. 8.

DHEC also investigated allegations that Williams verbally abused a patient and handled him or her so roughly that the patient suffered skin tears, according state records and agency spokesman Jim Beasley.

DHEC found no evidence to support the verbal abuse or skin tear allegations.

Last year, Westminster conducted its own “internal investigation” and terminated Williams for “offensive conduct toward a resident,” according to DHEC documents.

After Williams’ arrest last month, Westminster CEO Tony Fountain said Williams had been terminated but would not say if he had been fired because of the abuse allegation.

Efforts to reach Fountain on Friday were unsuccessful.

The victim, now 72, lived in Westminster Towers’ health center but has since moved out of state, Fountain said last month. Her move, he said, is “totally unrelated to this situation.”

Fountain said Williams, who had worked for Westminster Towers for about a year, worked in the health center.

Administrators at nursing homes licensed by DHEC must swear under oath that they will abide by state and federal laws, which include reporting regulations, said Nathan Hughey, a Charleston County nursing home attorney.

Failure to do that is akin to perjury, he said, and breaking the law.

“It could be an oversight,” he said, but “they can’t claim it’s not a big deal when they had to swear they would comply with it to get a license.”

“Elderly people are a lot like children. It’s a huge deal when something...like that is not reported. If you’re willing to hit one resident on the bottom...how many have you” hit, he said.

DHEC is authorized to revoke or suspend licenses. Failure to report an incident, including suspected abuse, to DHEC is considered a Class III violation, the least serious of DHEC’s tally of infractions. Nursing homes found guilty of a first-time Class III violation only have to pay between $100 to $300.

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which inspects nursing homes accepting those benefits, last noted seven deficiencies at Westminster in 2011. None of those deficiencies resulted in fines and were considered to cause “minimal harm or potential for actual harm.”

But, even addressing the issue internally without reporting to DHEC is “still serious,” Hughey said. “That’s like saying ‘Hey, I stole something...I already punished myself.”

Westminster is a nonprofit, Christian-based complex offering 138 apartments, 29 private assisted living apartments and a 66-bed health and rehabilitation center. It opened its doors in Rock Hill in 1989 and is accredited by the Continuing Care Accreditation Commission.

After the Aug. 16 inspection, DHEC gave Westminster until Sept. 1 to respond with a plan to correct the problem and prevent future incidents. Beasley confirmed that Westminster submitted a plan on time but it was not available on Friday.

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