ALBUQUERQUE — Suzette Lucero had to make the heartbreaking decision to take her father off life support following what she describes as an avoidable nightmare spurred by nursing home neglect.
The Santa Fe woman is among dozens of witnesses prepared to testify in New Mexico’s lawsuit against one of the nation’s largest nursing home chains.
A state district judge denied a request last week by one of the defendants for a stay, marking just the latest ruling in a string of motions that followed the filing of the lawsuit more than two years ago.
The case is scheduled for trial next year, but New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas is accusing the defendants of using the motions to delay the case and divert attention from allegations that thin staffing at nursing homes across the state made it impossible to provide good care.
Balderas says many patients suffered as a result and some died.
“This is going to be a very compelling case that we bring before the jury, and we’re glad that the judge is siding with many of our motions to have this case move forward,” he said.
Lawyers for Texas-based Preferred Care Partners Management Group have denied the claims, saying the case is frivolous and one of greed and opportunism.
The state initially sued in December 2014. It targeted several nursing homes run by Preferred Care, a privately held company with operations in several states. Among the homes cited in the lawsuit are two in Santa Fe: Casa Real Health Care Center and Santa Fe Care Center.
The lawsuit uses a novel approach to outline its claims, relying on the number of hours it takes to complete basic tasks, from helping residents to the bathroom to feeding and bathing them.
New Mexico alleges residents were not getting the care they needed, and the state and federal government were being improperly billed.
Preferred Care stands by the quality of care provided by its facilities, saying their staff is compassionate. The company also believes the recent court decisions are part of the routine legal process and don’t indicate any more momentum for the state’s case.
The defendants also have taken aim at prosecutors for how the case came about, saying the private law firm that first approached New Mexico about the case in 2012 has used similar tactics against nursing homes with other attorneys general across the country.
Balderas, who took office in 2015, initiated a review of the merits of the case before deciding to pursue the lawsuit.
He said he was pleased with another recent decision by the judge to deny a motion that sought to have the outside counsel removed from the case.
For Lucero and her brothers, talking about the death of their father in 2012 stirs up heartache and frustration.
It was supposed to be a short stay at the Casa Real nursing home in Santa Fe for physical therapy. Lucero said her father, Robert Pineda, had tripped and injured his knee on July 31, 2012.
The family said the nursing home was inattentive to repeated requests for care and that neglect resulted in Pineda developing a severe bedsore. That ultimately led to an infection and numerous surgeries that took a toll on the former accountant, actor and public servant. He was taken off life support Dec. 1, a week after his 69th birthday.
Lucero said it was difficult to watch her father deteriorate in a matter of months. He ended up on a ventilator and a dialysis machine.
“These are real people in these places,” she said of the patients. “When you have a shortage of staff, when you have uncertified nursing assistants working there, when you have individuals who don’t speak English, it’s just one thing on top of another. It’s not about a person missing a bath one day, people are dying from neglect.”
Lucero and the other families are looking for accountability.
“These companies have been slow to talk about reforms moving forward,” Balderas said. “Part of our litigation will be to secure a vast amount of damages for injuries but secondly we’re bringing this litigation to try to improve the quality of care.”