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Suit: Costa Mesa nursing home was understaffed

May 12, 2006|By Dave Brooks

A California nursing home chain with hospitals in Orange County was slapped with a class action lawsuit Wednesday over allegations of low staffing levels.

Attorney Stephen Garcia filed the lawsuit on behalf of former patients, a nonprofit group and a labor union that has regularly criticized the Ensign Group, a Mission Viejo corporation with 44 nursing homes, including facilities in Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach and Laguna Hills.

The lawsuit alleges that in 2003, the hospital chain violated staffing laws at 29 hospitals in California, dipping below the required daily 3.2 nursing hours per patient.

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The lawsuit said the Huntington Beach Sea Cliff Health Care Center staffed nurses 2.83 hours per patient at its center while the average at the Victoria Health Care Center in Costa Mesa was 3.15 nursing hours.

A call to Ensign requesting comment was returned by Mark Muir, director at Victoria health center, who said Ensign took over operation of the facility on July 1, 2003 and might not be responsible for the discrepancy in hours. Audits in 2004 and 2005 by the California Department of Health Services found that Victoria met its required staffing levels, he said.

"We're never staffing our facility below the state requirement," Muir said.

"We're very above that."

The Ensign Group has been in a protracted battle with the Service Employees International Union, which runs an anti-Ensign website, www .ensignwatch.com. On the site, which links to reports from the state health department, the union cites formal complaints of substandard care at many of the Ensign-owned facilities, including a January 2005 allegation that a Victoria health center patient hadn't had his catheter changed in four months, resulting in a painful urinary tract infection. Muir said he did not begin working at Victoria until mid-2005 and could not speak to that allegation.

Garcia said that Ensign regularly looks for high-needs patients because they bring in the largest reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid and that Ensign rarely provides the required staffing to care for these patients. According to a state health department report posted on www.ensign watch.com, the average wage at Victoria Care Center is $11.21 per hour, not enough to pay qualified nursing assistants.

"Fundamentally there is a problem in long-term healthcare, and it involves chronic understaffing," said Garcia, who filed his lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court on Wednesday.

He said he hopes his lawsuit not only forces nursing homes to meet the required minimum staffing levels but to also set nursing levels according to patient needs. He said he didn't believe the Department of Health Services did an effective job of monitoring nursing homes and was calling for the creation of an independent observer to watch the nursing homes.

"It's a place that hides their problems and we look forward to seeing it to light," he said. "As long as they want to fight, we'll fight it."

The lawsuit is the second of its kind in recent years against Ensign. In October 2004, the Service Employees International Union Local 250 allied with the California Alliance for Retired Americans and filed suit in Orange County Superior Court. That lawsuit also alleged that the hospital didn't meet proper staffing requirements in 2003.

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