State to check out people who take care of elderly, disabled

Starting this summer, hiring agencies must look at state criminal records, take fingerprints

Posted: Tuesday, February 22, 2005

ANCHORAGE - The state is requiring expanded background checks for long-term caregivers to the elderly, the disabled, the handicapped and other vulnerable people.

State officials say the expanded checks will standardize a care industry that has wide-ranging rules depending on licensing categories and often relies on voluntary participation.

Beginning as early as this summer, agencies hiring licensed workers for long-term-care patients must check state criminal records and take fingerprints to compare with those in state and national databases.

The investigations must be repeated every two years after the person is hired. A national criminal background check must be repeated every six years after hire.

The new program is not in response to Alaska having a problem with criminals working in long-term-care facilities, said Virginia Stonkus, project director for the new Background Check Unit in the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. It is more an effort to prevent abuses, she said.

The new background checks for all long-term-care facilities and services that require state licensing will match the standards used by assisted-living homes, which are under the strictest of the state mandates.

Jesalyn Stanton, executive director of the Salvation Army's Serendipity Adult Day Services in Anchorage, said she supports the more stringent requirements.

"There are a lot of vulnerable adults out there that need this protection," especially because workers have access to personal patient information, she said.

"It is easy to make a relationship with someone and then take advantage of that person," Stanton said.

Current state laws vary with regard to background checks. The rules governing personal care attendants mention nothing about a domestic violence record or a history of driving under the influence. But those offenses would bar prospective employees from working in assisted-living homes.

For nursing-home workers, laws say background checks are required. But there are no specifics on what would not pass the check, on what constitutes a history of abuse, neglect or misappropriation.

"In practice, people are doing (background checks) anyway," said Don Brand, program manager for the new background check unit, "because it is the logical and reasonable thing to do."

But it is not being done with the force of law for most of the license categories, he said. And, he said, businesses are making decisions on their own about what is acceptable.

The new system will require some legislative changes because the current background checks are regulated under licensing laws. The Department of Health and Social Services wants to repeal all current licensing statutes and enact a consolidated, universal omnibus law.

Stonkus said her agency is drafting legislation and plans to submit it to the governor's office. Even without the legislation, though, the project will proceed, according to state documents.

The program for its initial two years is being funded with a $5.2 million Medicare and Medicaid grant from the federal government. Six other states also received grant money for pilot programs to help determine the effectiveness of national background checks.

To assist in its implementation, the state plans to increase its database for fingerprinting criminals. The University of Alaska is also developing abuse-prevention training in its course work for degree program candidates slated to enter the field.

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