California Nursing Homes Likely Won’t Get Legal Immunity During Pandemic

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By Amita Sharma, KPBS, June 24 2020

Above: California Gov. Gavin Newsom is pictured in an April 2020 photograph. CREDIT: RICH PEDRONCELLI / AP

Despite months of pressure from the senior care home industry, it appears that neither Gov. Gavin Newsom nor state lawmakers will shield facilities from most lawsuits related to the coronavirus.

“This governor has shown a tremendous amount of empathy for the elderly here,” said Lea-Ann Tratten, political director for the Consumer Attorneys of California, which opposes giving immunity to the facilities.

In an April letter, hospitals, along with nursing homes and assisted living communities, asked Newsom for protection from lawsuits and criminal prosecution for decisions made during the COVID-19 crisis.

For weeks, sources told KPBS the governor was close to granting the legal immunity.

But with July approaching, there’s still no executive order from Newsom and no language for immunity legislation from the state Legislature. Newsom’s office has not responded to repeated requests for comment, and lawmakers would not go on the record to talk about the matter.

Tratten attributed the lack of movement on the issue to a gradual shift in thinking. She said Newsom and senior care facilities were in panic mode in “battlefield-like conditions” at the start of the pandemic.

But she said media coverage of how some nursing homes have treated its residents during the pandemic has exposed a need for more accountability, not less, which would have been a consequence of legal immunity.

“We’re talking about our most vulnerable population in an industry where we’ve seen gross violations,” Tratten said. “The problem with immunities is that they don’t encourage good behavior — they discourage it.”

Tratten added that Newsom and state lawmakers are likely hesitant to act after seeing what happened in the more than 20 other states where immunity has been granted. Many advocates and families of people living in the facilities say the immunity gave them no way to hold negligent facilities responsible.

A little more than half of California’s 5,515 COVID-19 deaths are tied to senior care facilities.

The California Association of Health Facilities (CAHF), which represents nursing homes, said the state’s nursing homes are asking for the same immunity given hospitals during emergencies.

“We’re asking for a level playing field,” said Deborah Pacyna, director of public affairs for CAHF.