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Wadhams cites Meridian's current dispute with the state health department as evidence that the Nagels don't have undue influence over Owens. "The proof is that the Nagels don't have a good relationship with Jane Norton," says Wadhams. "That indicates [their contributions] haven't played into this situation."
Wadhams also notes that criticism of the state health department's lax regulation of Colorado nursing homes extends back to the Romer administration.
The Nagels' political influence was vividly demonstrated during the last session of the legislature. Representative Kelley Daniel of Golden introduced a bill that would have limited long-term-care homes to charging thirty days' rent when a resident has to leave through no fault of his own. The proposed law was prompted by the same complaints against Meridian that first came to the attention of the ombudsman's office in 1993, over a clause then in its leases requiring residents of independent-living facilities to pay ninety days' rent after vacating their apartments, even if the vacancy was caused by illness or death. (The Nagels say they haven't needed to enforce that clause for several years, because they have a waiting list for apartments.) The bill attracted little notice in the House and passed easily with bipartisan support.
That may have been because the Nagels' chief lobbyist, Karen Reinertson of Hays, Hays & Wilson, had just been appointed by Owens to head the state agency that approves Medicaid payments to nursing homes. With Reinertson off the floor, apparently no one was tracking the bill on behalf of Meridian. Once the Nagels realized the bill had passed the House, they leapt into action to stop it in the state Senate.
"When the Nagels heard this had passed -- it flew in under the radar -- they dispatched every lobbyist from Hays, Hays & Wilson to the Senate," says Senator Sue Windels of Arvada, who sponsored the bill there. "They unleashed a huge effort to kill it." Trish Nagel personally joined her hired hands to lobby senators against the legislation.
Windels was also sponsoring an important nursing-home reform bill, Senate Bill 78. The lobbyists told her they would kill SB 78 if she tried to include the provisions limiting contracts to thirty days, she says. To save SB 78, Windels made that proposal part of a different bill.
To appease the Nagels, at one point the House even added a provision to SB 78 mandating that all investigations of complaints at private-pay facilities be done by the state health department rather than the ombudsman's office. But that provision was removed after legislators realized how costly it would be for the health department to take on the ombudsmen's role.
"Most of the complaints they handle are quite frivolous -- there's no chicken soup on the menu, and they promised there would be," says Windels. "It would have cost more than a million dollars a year for the health department to handle those complaints."
Windels tried to shepherd Daniel's thirty-day's notice bill through the Senate. Several other states have laws that place even more severe restrictions on the amount extended-care facilities can charge residents who leave, she points out. "We wanted to protect people who decide 'I don't know how much longer I can live independently,'" she says. "They know they're moving into a phase of their lives where they may have to move into a nursing home. What we were trying to do is protect them from things over which they have no control: death, and when the nursing home is going to ask someone to leave."
Windels's bill was defeated on a party-line vote after Democrat Jim Dyer of Durango joined the Republicans to kill it. Dyer had just been appointed by Owens to an $87,000-a-year job on the Public Utilities Commission.
Earlier this month, Meridian announced it was dropping the ninety-day-notice requirement from its leases and would require only thirty days' notice on its independent-living contracts.
Nevertheless, Nagel says she still would oppose Daniel's proposal. "Meridian did not support [the bill] because it would have set a dangerous precedent in undermining the public's ability to rely upon contracts in all types of businesses and would have done nothing to improve the quality of care or life of residents of nursing homes or personal-care boarding homes," she said in her statement to Westword.
Meridian's reputation for opposing government regulation is undeserved, according to Nagel: "Meridian has supported legislation that would increase the quality of care provided to residents of nursing homes and personal care boarding homes. This year, Meridian supported legislation to increase the role of the health department in investigating complaints in nursing homes. In the past, Meridian opposed legislation that would have eliminated unannounced annual inspections by the health department."
All of this skirmishing over one legislative proposal stands in sharp contrast to Colorado's failed effort to regulate nursing homes. For years, Colorado has had one of the worst records in the country for inspecting nursing homes and citing them for poor care ("Dying for Dollars," October 15, 1998). Several class-action lawsuits have exposed shocking conditions at area facilities and highlighted the state's refusal to crack down on the worst of them. And recently, workers at the state health department division that monitors nursing homes have become accustomed to regular office visits from FBI agents.