Legal Rights of Nursing Home Residents

A look at federal and state laws that provide nursing home residents with legal protection against mistreatment.

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There are a number of federal and state laws that are designed to protect residents of nursing homes from abuse, neglect and exploitation. Much of this legislation was introduced within the last 20 years or so, as the older population started to grow and the incidence of nursing home injuries and abuse began to show a marked increase.

Federal Laws Protecting Older People and Nursing Home Residents

Many federal laws have been enacted with the specific intention of protecting older citizens, particularly residents of nursing homes. Let's take a closer look at some of these statutes.

Title XX of the Social Security Act. Through this program, federal funds are provided to the states to provide community-based care for the elderly and disabled. Among the programs funded by this program are efforts to prevent abuse and neglect of nursing home residents.

Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program. This program exists in every state. The Ombudsmen are advocates for nursing home residents, and they work to resolve issues associated with the care of individual residents. The Ombudsman’s office in each state investigates individual complaints about nursing home abuse, neglect and exploitation. For more information: The National Long-Term Care Ombudsman Resource Center

Older Americans Act. This program aims to provide comprehensive services to the elderly through a network of state and community agencies. The program focuses primarily on nutrition and health programs.

Nursing Home Reform Act. Enacted in 1987, this legislation is designed to ensure that nursing home residents receive quality levels of basic care. The primary result of the legislation is that each nursing home resident is now the beneficiary of a "Resident’s Bill of Rights." The Nursing Home Reform Act has established the following legal rights for nursing home residents:

  1. The right to freedom from abuse, mistreatment, and neglect
  2. The right to freedom from physical restraints
  3. The right to privacy
  4. The right to accommodation of medical, physical, psychological, and social needs
  5. The right to participate in resident and family groups
  6. The right to be treated with dignity
  7. The right to exercise self-determination
  8. The right to communicate freely
  9. The right to participate in the review of one's care plan, and to be fully informed in advance about any changes in care, treatment, or change of status in the facility; and
  10. The right to voice grievances without discrimination or reprisal.

If the responsible state agency finds that the nursing home is out of compliance with the requirements of the Nursing Home Reform Act, the state has the authority to impose a variety of penalties, including monetary fines and even a replacement of the nursing home management structure.

State Laws Protecting Older People and Nursing Home Residents

Many of the federal protections identified above rely on the individual states for implementation. While the federal government may provide considerable funding to the states to provide these services, often the local state or community agencies are responsible for the monitoring of nursing home conditions as well as the enforcement of penalties if the environments or services are sub-standard.

Adult Protective Services (APS) programs exist in every state for the benefit of adults with disabilities and of the elderly in general. Typically, if an instance of nursing home abuse or neglect is reported to a law enforcement agency or other social service, the complaint will be referred to APS to conduct an investigation. The investigator will assess the resident’s needs and will partner with other social services to address the adequacy of food, shelter, hygiene, healthcare and clothing. Adult Protective Services operates apart from, but in partnership with, any necessary law enforcement efforts that might be required because of the situation. Learn more about Adult Protective Services.

Any type of physical abuse or financial exploitation is also considered a criminal offense under the laws of each state. Once local law enforcement investigates an instance of abuse or exploitation, if the situation warrants, the offenders will be prosecuted just like any perpetrator of a crime.

Each state also has a series of consumer protection laws that are designed to protect persons from financial exploitation, fraud, and deceptive marketing.

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