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'Granny cams' urged for nursing homes

NEW YORK (AP) — Surveillance cameras keep a watch these days at schools, shops and offices. Could grandma's bedroom at the nursing home be next?

The nursing home industry hopes not; it has steadfastly opposed so-called "granny cams." But industry critics, including some whose parents were abused at nursing homes, think surveillance could reduce mistreatment of elderly residents and improve services.

Lawmakers in four states have joined the fight. They've proposed bills that would require nursing homes to let residents install cameras in their rooms.

"People are angry with the nursing home industry," said Maryland legislator Sue Hecht said. "This is a way for them to turn that around."

During a visit two years ago, Hecht found her 88-year-old mother in tears in her nursing home bedroom as an employee screamed at her.

Hecht channeled her anger into drafting a surveillance camera bill. Similar proposals are now before the legislatures in Florida, Texas and Arkansas.

Hecht's measure died in committee this month, but industry officials agreed to cooperate in a two-year pilot program in Maryland. It will involve at least two nursing homes; details remain to be worked out.

"We'll be able to dispel a lot of the hysteria from the nursing homes about what's going to happen, that employees will leave in droves, that there will be privacy problems," Hecht said.

Nursing homes worry that "granny cams" would give lawyers raw material for loads of unwarranted lawsuits, driving up insurance costs for the industry. Employees also dislike working under the camera's ever-present eye.

"Our biggest problem is recruiting and retaining staff," said Adam Kane, public policy director for the Mid-Atlantic Non-Profit Health & Housing Association. "We're concerned that this will exacerbate the problem."

Proponents of surveillance cameras say nursing home residents and their families should decide for themselves whether to install the devices and how to use the footage. But Kane says this would be unfair.

"Other businesses are monitored, but it's a management tool. In this case, management never even sees the tape," he said. "What we're afraid of is the tape goes straight from someone's room to a law firm."

Privacy is another concern. Dr. Charles Roadman, president of the American Health Care Association, has warned that in-room cameras may show patients undergoing medical procedures or being assisted using the toilet.

Advocates of the cameras agree that privacy is a sensitive issue, but insist that families — not management — are the best arbiters of what's appropriate.

"My mother would not want a video camera under any circumstances. My father would welcome it," said Barbara Hengstebeck, executive director of the Florida-based Coalition to Protect America's Elders. "Most families know what their parents would want."

Hengstebeck said cameras might detect some flagrant abuses, but she believes the industry's fears really center on poor service.

"They're worried about what people are not going to see," she said. "There's more neglect than anything else. You're going to see people not getting bathed, not getting fed, call bells not getting answered. That's what they're afraid of."

In theory, said Hengstebeck, most nursing home residents already have the legal right to install cameras. But she and other advocates say nursing homes discourage the practice, in some cases threatening to evict residents.

Violette King, who directs the Illinois-based advocacy group Nursing Home Monitors, is recruiting lawyers and families in several states to challenge the status quo on cameras. The idea would be for a family to install a camera, then fight the ensuing court battle with the nursing home.

"Even with the promise of legal help, a lot of families aren't willing to take the risk," King said.

King believes surveillance cameras could be a win-win proposition — bringing peace of mind to families and encouraging nursing-home to make improvements that eventually would lower insurance costs.

One Florida businessman, Mark O'Steen, would probably agree. He has installed cameras in the common areas of an assisted living facility he owns in Lake City.

"I want to keep an eye on my people and see what's going on," he said. "I'll put cameras anywhere it won't invade the privacy of the residents."


On the Net: American Health Care Association: www.ahca.org

Committee to Protect America's Elders: www.protectelders.org