Across the United States, nursing-home residents are having their money stolen by people they know: the homes’ bookkeepers and office managers who handle their trust funds and manage their expenses.
It's a crime that's been committed against thousands of nursing-home residents, including Leo Foster’s 89-year-old mother at the Vicksburg Convalescent Center in Vicksburg, Miss.
“It made me feel sick at my stomach,” Leo’s wife Phyllis Foster told TODAY's National Investigative Correspondent Jeff Rossen. “It just didn't dawn on me that someone would be so low as to steal from a vulnerable adult.”
Police learned that a woman named Lee Ray Martin, a business office coordinator at the Vicksburg Convalescent Center and Shady Lawn Health and Rehabilitation homes, had been raiding residents’ trust accounts.
“In (a) three-month period there were 12 or 15 cash withdrawals,” Phyllis Foster said of her mother-in-law’s account. “And we knew that there was something drastically wrong.”
In August, Martin pleaded guilty to 29 counts of exploitation of a vulnerable person and one count of conspiracy. She is accused of stealing more than $100,000 from 83 residents’ trust funds and going on shopping sprees at stores like J.C. Penney, Gap, Walmart and American Eagle. In one instance, Martin bought a pair of designer jeans and expensed them to an elderly resident with no legs.
A USA TODAY investigation into thefts from nursing home trust funds found that more than 100 cases like Martin’s have been prosecuted since 2010.
“What we found was that it is just enormously easy for people to get away with this, even in really good nursing homes,” USA TODAY investigative reporter Peter Eisler told TODAY.
“In most states there are no audit requirements. The people who do the nursing home inspections really aren’t looking close at the books for these trust funds.”
Officials say there’s another loophole as well: In most states, there are no criminal background checks for nursing-home administrators. Someone who has been convicted for a crime of this nature can relocate to another state and get the same kind of job at another nursing home.
“And you know what I’ve found about embezzlers,” said Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. “They’re gonna do it again. ...
“I think we oughta have mandatory background checks for anybody that works in a nursing facility.”
Officials in the long-term care industry say such theft is rare. Martin’s employer fired her, turned her in to police, reimbursed all theft victims and implemented “additional management controls” to prevent fraud.
To protect nursing-home residents from being swindled, their loved ones are encouraged to request and carefully check monthly statements from the facility. It’s also a good idea to ask for actual receipts for any purchases made for loved ones.
If fraud gets detected, here’s some good news: It’s possible to get stolen money back. Nursing homes are required to have insurance that covers this type of theft.
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