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    When Edna Mae Witt entered a nursing home in Texas City, Tex., in August of 1978, her family thought she would be home soon. Instead, the 78-year old grandmother died after bedsores that developed while she was a patient became infected.
    She was one of 56 elderly patients who died between 1977 and 1979 : 35 of them over a 90-day period in 1978 at the Autumn Hills Convalescent Center in Texas City, a 120-bed facility, one of 17 nursing homes in the Autumn Hills chain.
    Witt became a pathetic footnote in a frustrating battle against a government system of regulators who find they cannot regulate and prosecutors who find they cannot prosecute, even when a nursing home and eight of its employees are charged with murder.
    That it happened in Texas makes it all the more alarming because Texas, the federal government says, has one of the best nursing home inspection programs in the nation.
    IF IT HAPPENED HERE, say advocates for nursing home residents, it could happen anywhere. Only 20 percent of the nation’s nursing homes meet minimum federal standards all of the time, says the National Citizens Coalition for Nursing Home Reform.
    Senate investigators have been following the Autumn Hills case for months and now the Senate Special Committee on Aging is planning hearings to assess its “national implications.”
    “With every fraud investigation the committee has conducted, we have found a constant connection between financial manipulation and poor care,” said Sen. John Heinz [R., Pa.], the committee chairman. ” While this connection is constant, it is rarely as specific and verifiable as it is in this case.”
    The murder charges were dropped a few weeks ago after a controversial plea-bargaining agreement allowed the nursing home operators to pay a $100,000 fine, submit to 10 years of court supervision and plead no contest to one count of involuntary manslaughter.
    AN AGGRESSIVE young prosecutor had argued that the nursing home received federal and state funds to provide quality care for its patients, but it failed to live up to its side of the contract. Because of that, the state said, the patients died.
    Agnes Buxton, Mrs. Witt’s daughter, sees it another way.
    “My mother would have been better off if she had stood out there in the street and let a car hit her. She would have been instantly dead. She wouldn’t have suffered for so long,” she said.

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