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Lawmakers grill ADHS director over audit finding health department failed to properly investigate nursing home complaints

Some of the complaints detailed allegations of abuse and neglect, some leading to death.

ARIZONA, USA — In a nearly three-hour hearing, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed frustration and concern with a recent audit report claiming Arizona's Department of Health Services failed to properly investigate complaints for years.

RELATED: ADHS failing to investigate complaints at nursing homes: Auditor General report

The audit report, published in May 2022, detailed accusations that ADHS didn’t investigate serious complaints at long-term care facilities quickly enough, downgraded complaints, and, in some cases, closed complaint allegations without investigation.

Some of the complaints detailed allegations of abuse and neglect, some leading to death.

"From our review, there appeared to be an intentional decision to not conduct these investigations," reported Melanie Chesney with the Auditor General's Office.

Lindsey Perry, the auditor who wrote the report, went on to say the deficiencies seemed to be systematic, raising red flags for the Health and Human Services joint legislative committee.

"Does a criminal complaint need to be filed against anyone from the Department because of this?" asked Sen. David Livingston.

That decision could be up to the Attorney General’s Office, although the Auditor General's Office said it found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

In the hearing, lawmakers asked for the Auditor General to have the Attorney General review their findings. 

The allegations stem from a review of Department records from July 2019 to April 2021. The May 2022 audit report was a follow-up to a 2019 audit that already found concerns with complaint investigations. The latest investigation found the health department made none of the recommended changes.

"I think it’s a huge detriment to the citizens of Arizona that none of this has happened in 20 months," said Rep. Steve Kaiser. "Meanwhile we have our most vulnerable who can’t communicate when they’re being abused not being looked out after."

ADHS received a copy of the recent findings in May 2022.

"On the surface, it looks really bad," interim ADHS Director Don Herrington said to the committee.

Herrington, who took over the role in August 2021, said he didn't think the findings in the report could be intentional. He told 12 News last month that his department would be conducting an internal investigation.

"In our research so far we’ve found no smoking gun," he told the legislative committee.

Lawmakers more skeptical were more skeptical, grilling Herrington, who offered the pandemic and short staffing as some explanation.

Herrington said the Department was down at least 15 investigators who would handle complaints at long-term care facilities. He said the legislature budgeted $1.6 million last year to help fill those vacancies, but so far, they'd only been able to spend $31,000 on a part-time position.

Lawmakers expressed concerns that some of the deficiencies could still be in practice now, many saying they weren't satisfied with Herrington's answers.

"It’s outrageous," said Rep. Kelli Butler. "I’ve never seen anything like this. The level of incompetence is astonishing and it puts people’s lives at risk."

The audit findings also raised concerns over the quality of care at state-licensed facilities.

The hearing concluded with new recommendations established by the Auditor General's Office and the legislative committee.  

A spokesperson for Arizona's Department of Health Services sent the following statement Friday afternoon over email:

We continue our review of the matters highlighted by the Auditor General's Office and look forward to sharing more information with lawmakers. Implementing the recommendations is a top priority of the department, and we are dedicating the resources necessary to make that happen. We are committed to the health and safety of Arizonans in long-term care facilities.

Note, these audit findings were based on reviews of cases when Dr. Cara Christ was the Director of Health Services. Both she and the Assistant Director of Licensing left their roles in the past year.

The Attorney General's Office did not respond to a request for comment from 12 News.

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