Court: Private parties can't sue SNFs to release documents

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The court found no "clear statutory language" allowing private parties to sue to enforce health regulations
The court found no "clear statutory language" allowing private parties to sue to enforce health regulations

Nursing homes can't be sued by private parties looking to access the facilities' documents, a state high court has ruled.

The issue involved two representatives of former nursing home residents of facilities operated by Virginia Health Services. After the residents died, their representatives requested copies of the policies and procedures that were in place at the time; the facilities refused.

Both representatives sued VHS, seeking a court order that would compel the facilities to provide the documents under a Virginia Board of Health regulation that requires nursing homes to make written policies and procedures “available for review, upon request, to residents and their designated representatives.”

A trial court denied the representatives' request, and they appealed.

In a July 14 opinion, Virginia Supreme Court Justice D. Arthur Kelsey noted that the case isn't about whether the regulation concerns current or former nursing home residents and their representatives. Instead, Kelsey wrote, the matter is on whether private parties can sue to see the documents.

“We find in this statutory scheme multiple methods of enforcing the nursing homes' regulatory duties, including the document-production requirement,” Kelsey said. “What we do not find is any clear statutory language expressly authorizing or implying that private parties can file a civil action in circuit court to enforce the regulation outside the administrative process.”

Alternative methods do exist to force a Virginia nursing home to provide its documents, Kelsey noted, including a private party filing an administrative complaint with the state health department or the health commissioner filing a civil enforcement action.

A similar case involving residents' rights, in which the family of a deceased resident tried to invoke the Federal Nursing Home Reform Act when seeking damages, was dismissed by a Wisconsin court in September.