Assembly Panel OKs Oliver & Giblin Bill Requiring Immediate Reporting of Suspected Abuse to the Institutionalized Elderly

An Assembly panel on Thursday approved bipartisan legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Sheila Oliver and Thomas Giblin that would require suspected abuse of the institutionalized elderly to be reported to local law enforcement immediately.

Currently both state and federal laws dictate that it first must be confirmed that a crime may have been committed before it becomes mandatory for facility staff to report elder abuse to local law enforcement. Under the bill approved today, virtually any health care facility employee would be required to immediately notify local law enforcement if they have reasonable cause to suspect or believe that an institutionalized elderly person is being or has been abused or exploited.

The bill (A-936), known as “Peggy’s Law,” is named after Peggy Marzolla, a 93-year-old Alzheimer’s patient who died roughly two months after suffering significant injuries in February 2010 while she was a patient at Brandywine Senior Living in Brick, New Jersey.

“What Peggy Marzolla suffered is heartbreaking,” said Oliver (D-Essex/Passaic). “While we may never know for certain if a crime was actually committed in her case, it’s unconscionable to think that this type of abuse can be overlooked or swept under the carpet. Seniors and their family members should have the peace of mind that there is a system in place to stop this traumatic abuse in its tracks.”

“My heart goes out to Peggy’s family and any others who may have experienced similar abuse at the hands of someone they entrusted their loved one with,” said Giblin (D-Essex/Passaic). “We need more accountability to ensure that this type of abuse and neglect is reported immediately. No one should have to experience what Peggy’s family did.”

Peggy was taken to Ocean Medical Center where doctors discovered she had a broken eye socket, a broken cheekbone, a broken jaw, a broken wrist, a badly bruised elbow, a gash on her left shin and welts on her back. Peggy passed away roughly two months after she was taken to the hospital and employees at Brandywine told her daughter, Maureen Marzolla-Persi, she had slipped on some powder in a bathroom and fallen backward.

Her daughter later contacted the state Office of the Ombudsman for the Institutionalized Elderly, where she was put on a waiting list after she reported what she suspected was abuse against her mother. The investigation by the ombudsman’s office did not result in any criminal charges, nor any sanctions against the Brandywine Senior Living facility, but the experience led Persi to mount a campaign in her mother’s name to stiffen state laws against elder abuse.

Specifically, the bill would require that any caretaker, social worker, physician, registered or licensed practical nurse, other professional, other staff member, or representative of a managed care entity who, as a result of information obtained in the course of his employment, has reasonable cause to suspect or believe that an institutionalized elderly person is being or has been abused or exploited, must report this information to the local law enforcement agency, as well as to the state the Ombudsman for the Institutionalized Elderly, in certain specified timeframes.

The bill also lays out specific actions the Office of the Ombudsman must take when it receives various complaints or reports, such as contacting the appropriate state or federal agency or authority who has oversight over the matter.

Current law only stipulates that these professionals report this information “in a timely manner” to the ombudsman. However, under the changes proposed in the bill, if the events that cause the suspicion or belief result in serious bodily injury, the person must report it immediately, but no later than two hours after forming the suspicion or belief, otherwise it must be reported no later than within 24 hours.

The bill specifically permits, but does not require, any other person who has reasonable cause to suspect or believe that an elderly person is being or has been abused or exploited to report such information to the local law enforcement agency and the ombudsman.

Additionally, in order to ensure that residents or patients and their family members, as well as employees of facilities for the institutionalized elderly, are aware of the reporting requirements of the law, the bill requires that:
– Notices that include information about the procedure to follow in filing a complaint and other pertinent information, which are posted in the facility and given to patients and their family members, shall be prepared in both English and Spanish and shall indicate the option to call 9-1-1;
– Facilities inform patients, residents or clients, their guardians, resident representatives, or their families, of their rights and entitlements under state and federal laws and rules and regulations in a format and language that the recipient understands, by means of the distribution of educational materials; and
– The administrator of a facility shall annually provide all caretakers, social workers, physicians, registered or licensed practical nurses, other professionals, and other staff employed at the facility with a notice explaining the requirements in the bill concerning the reporting of suspected abuse or exploitation of an institutionalized elderly person, and require, as a condition of employment at the facility, that the professional acknowledge in writing receipt of the notice, which acknowledgement will be retained in the employee’s personnel file.

The bill also requires the Office of the Ombudsman to establish a system to receive complaints 24 hours per day, seven days per week, whether or not live staff is available to receive the complaint.

The bill was approved by the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee.