Senior Lobby Updates

Long-term care residents’ rights don’t match those of other tenants


Patricia Hunter

Special to The Seattle Times

Imagine that one day, you get a knock on the door. The person at your door says you are being kicked out of your home. There is nothing you can do about it.

Or, imagine that you fall and hurt yourself. You go to the emergency room. The doctor keeps you in the hospital for a few days. When you are fit for release, you are informed that your home is no longer available to you. Now imagine these scenarios happening to someone who is elderly. Or someone who is much younger but has a traumatic brain injury due to an accident. Or someone who has advanced dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. 

As the Washington State Long-Term Care Ombuds, I get calls from people like this on a weekly basis — people who are being evicted from long-term care facilities. I also get calls from hospitals asking for help because a long-term care home “dumped” a resident in the emergency room and won’t take the person back. In Washington, “long-term care facility” usually means a nursing home, assisted living facility or adult family home. Washington is a leader in the nation when it comes to giving people more choices than expensive nursing homes when they need long-term care.

However, protections of the landlord-tenant act do not apply to the nearly 60,000 long-term care residents who live in assisted living or adult family homes. The “fair hearing” rights — the federal rights granted to nursing home residents — do not apply to them. This is the unfortunate state of our law even if the person has been living in their care facility — their home — and making their monthly payments for years. There are six legal reasons a resident can be evicted from an assisted living facility or an adult family home. But those evictions are not subject to independent review before the resident is forced out. Residents lack the legal right to appeal the decision of the facility.

Without the right to appeal, there is no accountability to the law, and it makes it easy to abuse the most vulnerable and frail in our communities. To evict a long-term care resident into homelessness, without any access whatsoever to any legal process to protect their rights, should be unthinkable.

So who checks to make sure the reason is lawful? Who listens to the details and determines which side is “right” — the party that initiated the eviction or the party being evicted? In most cases, no one does. The person being evicted feels defeated, scared, unsure of their rights, and believes they have no option other than to leave. Even if they have no place to go. Had they been living in a nursing home, they would have much greater rights. But because they chose a “community-based” setting, a more homelike environment, they do not have these rights. This choice made by thousands of long-term care residents over the last 30 years has saved the federal government and taxpayers millions of dollars. 

How can this be fixed? All residents of long-term care settings deserve to have the same “fair hearing” rights that nursing home residents have. House Bill 1859, a bill sponsored by Rep. Tarra Simmons, would provide residents in all licensed long-term care settings with a pathway to obtain a legal review when they are evicted. The protection of an appeal process won’t guarantee the resident will win, but it will give all sides their “day in court.”

The greatest gift Washington state legislators can give our most vulnerable family members, friends and neighbors who live in long-term care homes is access to due process, and the peace of mind, safety and stability that comes with it.

Patricia Hunter is the state long-term care ombuds and manages the nonprofit Washington State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, which is operated by the Multi-Service Center in Federal Way.