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Thousands Of Elder Abuse Reports In Minnesota Never Investigated In Person

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- WCCO has learned that thousands of allegations of elderly abuse and neglect at Minnesota nursing homes are never investigated in person.

Earlier this month, we showed you the alleged neglect of a 94-year-old World War II veteran at a Twin Cities senior living facility. His daughter put a hidden camera in his room. It caught staff members eating his food, not checking up on him, and not changing his clothing for days.

The state health department investigates complaints. Leaders admitted to Jennifer Mayerle: They're overwhelmed as the number of complaints far outpaces last year.

"Really? We're counting on you, you're like the defense line," Senator Jim Abeler (R) District 35 said.

Sen. Abeler was stunned when he heard the statistics from the Minnesota Department of Health's Office of Health Facility Complaints. Maltreatment allegations, self-reported by providers, rose dramatically from 3,600 in 2010 to more than 24,000 in 2016. Only 2 percent of those were investigated in person last year. And less than 10 percent of complaint allegations from the public had on-site investigations. That means the rest are handled without an investigator ever stepping foot into a facility.

"To have this really important arm of their department be so deficient my teeth fell out of my head," Abeler said.

Assistant Commissioner Gilbert Acevedo recognizes the problem and calls it unacceptable.

"We have sounded the alarm we're telling people. We are talking about it," Acevedo said.

He calls it the "silver tsunami." There is an increase in seniors receiving services and a workforce shortage. Plus a newer centralized reporting center for families allows them to see the full picture.

"Everything feels like a perfect storm, everything happens all at once. Right now we're so overwhelmed with the case load that as we receive the cases that come in through our intake and triage, we're having to triage those cases that are serious harm at a higher priority over other cases that we would have normally, about 10 years ago, have gone out for," Acevedo said.

Examples of what's being investigated in person: falls that lead to death, verbal, physical and sexual abuse, maltreatment and neglect and financial exploitation.

The state has five days to open a complaint. At one time it was taking the office 30 days. Acevedo said that's been corrected, and it's now at 24 to 48 hours. But the efficiency on the front end has created a backlog.

"A reasonable amount of case load, open case load that would be reasonable for an investigator is 15. Right now our investigators are carrying an open case log of 40," Acevedo said.

At times it takes 6 to 8 months to close a case.

"That is not acceptable at all," Acevedo said.

The legislature agrees. Lawmakers asked the Office of the Legislative Auditor to audit the department this year.

"What we expect is a complaint comes in they go, 'oh no, this sounds terrible. We're going to investigate it.' What turns out is they, 'oh no this is terrible, maybe we'll get to it maybe we won't.' Flabbergasting," Abeler said.

The health department asked the legislature for money to add 50 more workers. That's more than double the current staff. Acevedo stressed the department is also looking at ways to improve its current process. Even with the additional funding, it would take a year to recruit and train new investigators.

Wednesday at 10: Questions to ask a facility or center and what you can do if you're concerned about the care your loved one receives at a senior facility.

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