New state law conceals records of abuse, neglect in nursing homes
Joshua Wahl’s life had never been easy. But he was happy, his mother said.
Wahl has spina bifida, is brain damaged and paralyzed from the chest down. At age 32, he lived at a group home in Menomonie, where he loved coloring and going on picnics, said his mother, Karen Nichols-Palmerton.
One evening in October 2011, she visited the home and found her son’s room empty.
Wahl had been rushed to the hospital for treatment of a bedsore so severe that doctors feared he would be permanently bedridden.
A state health department investigation report later found he had the bedsore for four months before being hospitalized.
But the staff who cared for Wahl never sought medical attention for his wound, state investigation records show. And the facility never told the state or Nichols-Palmerton about it, as required by state law, according to state officials.
Instead, caregivers at Aurora Residential Alternatives sprinkled the bedsore with baby powder and applied antibiotic cream, watching it grow larger and more serious until it was bone-deep, records show. Nichols-Palmerton is suing Aurora for alleged negligence, seeking punitive and compensatory damages.
Changes to Wisconsin law passed two years ago, however, mean her attorney can’t use those state investigation records as evidence in the lawsuit, which alleges a four-month pattern of neglect.
The law, which went into effect in February 2011, bars families from using state health investigation records in state civil suits filed against long-term providers, including nursing homes and hospices. It also makes such records inadmissible in criminal cases against health care providers accused of neglecting or abusing patients.
The changes were included in a tort reform measure, the first bill Gov. Scott Walker proposed after Republicans swept both houses and the governor’s office in the 2010 elections.