Why an Illinois nursing home operator is being sued for alleged understaffing

An Illinois company chose profits over people by understaffing its nursing homes, leading to poor care that endangered residents, an Illinois class-action lawsuit alleges.

On Tuesday, 11 unnamed residents of six nursing homes sued Alden Group and its business affiliates for damages related to alleged violations of residents' rights to adequate care and deceptive business practices. The suit also claims that the company submitted falsified staffing documents to state regulators.

"For many years Alden has engaged in an ongoing practice of profiting from systematically and knowingly understaffing the Alden facilities, causing dangerous, distressing, and grossly unsanitary living conditions for thousands of residents," the complaint said.

What does the lawsuit say happened to residents?

According to the suit filed by two Chicago law firms, a Chicago nonprofit called Equip for Equality, and the AARP Foundation alleges that:

  • most of the six named Chicago-area homes provided less than half of the necessary nursing hours from 2018 to 2020, below mandatory minimums;

  • a resident fell down stairs while strapped to a wheelchair, another suffered a fractured neck in a fall from a mechanical lift, and another ingested poisonous chemicals, all due to lack of care;

  • Alden lied to regulators about staffing and falsified documents with “ghost staff” and names of employees that no longer worked for the company; and

  • the company required agreements preventing residents from suing after injuries due to understaffing.

A spokeswoman for Alden said the company “vigorously denies” the allegations. The company, a for-profit operation, runs 52 facilities in Illinois and Wisconsin and generates more than $250 million in annual revenue, according to the suit.

“Alden is committed to providing quality care and the well-being of our residents has been and always will be our top priority,” said Janine Schoen, Alden’s vice president of policy and public relations.

How is the lawsuit likely to affect the broader industry?

Since enforcement penalties from federal or state regulators can often be lacking, a class-action suit can “send a message to the industry” that it can’t continue “put residents at risk with impunity,” said Richard Mollot, executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for nursing home residents.

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“This lawsuit is particularly important because it is a class action, seeking to hold a company accountable for neglect in multiple facilities,” Mollot said by email. “If successful, I think that it would send a strong message and, hopefully, encourage others to go after companies when there is evidence of harm resulting from poor care or conditions.”

Mollot said forced arbitration clauses, which block many lawsuits, are increasingly being inserted in residency agreements across the country.

Why does staffing matter at nursing homes?

Nursing care is hands-on and requires days filled with helping people to bathe, dress, walk and use the bathroom, a set of tasks that require adequate staffing to be done effectively, said David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School.

In an email, Grabowski said academic studies show for-profit nursing homes operate at lower levels than their non-profit counterparts.

“Staffing accounts for two-thirds of nursing home spending,” Grabowski wrote. “Thus, if you are going to cut expenses, it will largely be through staffing numbers and wages.”

More: 'Permanent shock' to nursing homes? Facilities fail to replace workers who quit after COVID outbreaks

The White House is preparing to use its executive authority to tighten industry regulations.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is planning to issue new rules about mandatory minimum staffing in spring of 2023.

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Nick Penzenstadler and Jayme Fraser are reporters on the USA TODAY investigations team. Contact Nick at or @npenzenstadler, or on Signal at (720) 507-5273. Contact Jayme at, @jaymekfraser on Twitter and Facebook, or on Signal and WhatsApp at (541) 362-1393.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Illinois nursing home operator target of class-action lawsuit