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Minnesota's backlog of elder-abuse complaints has been cleared

ST. PAUL—Minnesota no longer has a backlog of elder-abuse allegations that need to be investigated.

The Minnesota Department of Health announced Wednesday that state officials have finished investigating 826 cases of abuse of seniors and vulnerable adults. Investigators substantiated allegations in 30 percent of those cases.

The investigations were part of a backlog of 2,231 reports of abuse and neglect the state faced in January.

What remains unclear is the final outcome of the cases where investigators found merit in the allegations. A Department of Health spokesman said it takes time for cases to be resolved because they are often referred to other agencies, such as the state Board of Nursing.

Jan Malcolm, who was appointed to lead the Department of Health in the midst of the backlog, said teamwork between her agency's Office of Health Facility Complaints and the state Department of Human Services improved the state's response to complaints.

The state receives about 400 complaints each week and has received 12,849 since the beginning of 2018.

"Due to hard work and an aggressive quality improvement process, we are in a much better place to serve Minnesota's elders and families," Malcolm said in a statement announcing the clearing of the backlog. She added the department continues to work to improve its response to complaints and to address the underlying factors that lead to abuse.

A call for help

Minnesota's backlog came to light in 2017 when state lawmakers learned many complaints of abuse of seniors and vulnerable adults were not being properly investigated. During the 2018 legislative session, family members gave emotional testimony of the maltreatment their loved ones faced at facilities that were supposed to be overseen by the state.

But state lawmakers were unable to agree on meaningful reforms to improve protections for seniors and vulnerable adults. Changes approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature fell victim to Gov. Mark Dayton's veto of the sprawling budget bill they were included in.

Advocates for vulnerable adults criticized the proposed changes that did make it through the House and Senate, calling them a step backward, in many cases, from current law.

What's ahead

Emily Piper, Human Services commissioner, called clearing the backlog a milestone, but added that new regulations are needed.

"Much work remains, including needed legislation that will put safeguards in place to make sure Minnesotans are treated with dignity as they grow older and can no longer care for themselves," Piper said.

The Department of Health has implemented a new electronic system for documenting complaints that should improve how quickly cases are addressed and make it easier for families to follow up on allegations. They've also updated how the Office of Health Facility of Complaints investigates allegations.

A March inquiry by the state legislative auditor, a government watchdog, found poor leadership in the Office of Health Facility Complaints exacerbated the state's inability to properly investigate past allegations of elder abuse.

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