Health

Just weeks shy of leaving office, Gov. Steve Beshear signed an emergency regulation requiring background checks for people who work in elder care facilities.

The new requirement is now a condition of obtaining or renewing a license to operate in the commonwealth.

Starting Jan. 1, about 1,300 providers in Kentucky will have to get national background checks for all new employees, according to a Friday news release from the governor’s office.

The new regulation will cover intermediate care facilities, assisted living communities, hospice, staffing agencies and other providers, according to the news release.

The new rule is aimed at tackling persistent issues in some of the state’s nursing homes. According to various federal metrics, those Kentucky nursing homes are plagued with problems such as neglect of patients.

Advocates have long been calling for beefed-up staffing standards to address those problems.

Among those who have been calling for changes is Nancy Trentham, the co-founder of the Kentucky Initiative for Quality Nursing Home Standards.

“My goodness gracious, it is so needed,” Trentham said.

Kentucky Association of Health Care Facilities could not immediately be reached for comment.

She said she and other advocates have been pleading with Beshear and state officials to put the national background checks mandatory for all facilities.

“It is a relief to know that he has finally done this,” Trentham said.

Trentham said she’s been trying to get the Kentucky General Assembly to pass stricter rules for nursing home staffing.

Beth Fischer, a spokeswoman for Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said the impetus for this emergency regulation was to address the dangers people residing in long-term care facilities are facing.

“It’s a very vulnerable population,” she said. “A lot of times when you see elder abuse and elder neglect it is at the hands of health care providers at these types of facilities. So this was needed.”

Fischer said staff cited for problems at elder care facilities are many times repeat offenders, as well.

Besides better staff training, Trentham has said background checks would be key to improving some of the bigger issues facing the state’s nursing homes. Until now, she said many homes didn’t fingerprint medical and non-medical staff before they hired them, which was putting residents in danger.

Kentucky law has only required “name-based, Kentucky-specific background checks,” which the governor’s office says created a “loophole” allowing applicants seeking employment in long-term elder care facilities to hide crimes committed in other states.

“Meanwhile, the prevalence of alleged abuse or exploitation of seniors in these settings remained significant,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “Since May 2014, more than 2,600 total complaints have been lodged against long-term care providers, nearly 30 percent of which were directly related to suspected abuse or exploitation of residents.”

Fischer said this change will fix that loophole.

WFPL reported earlier this year that only 11 percent of licensed nursing homes were participating in a voluntary fingerprinting program, called KARES, for elder care facilities through a state agency, according to the state agency that runs it.

Betsey Johnson, president of the Kentucky Association of Health Care Facilities, said earlier this year that access to fingerprint scanners had been a barrier for many facilities.

According to the governor’s office, the state’s fingerprint program was recently awarded $689,000 in grant funding to add 35 more fingerprint scanners. That brings the state’s total number of scanner locations to 70.