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Nursing home's policy challenged

State officials are challenging a nursing home company's policy which requires residents to travel to New Mexico at their own expense to settle legal disputes.

The clause in Peak Medical Corp. contracts states all disputes between a resident and the nursing home company ``shall be resolved either by mediation or arbitration and not by a lawsuit filed in court.''

It states demands for arbitration must be made within nine months of the dispute, less than half of Oklahoma's statute of limitations, and also states the hearing will be held in Albuquerque, N.M., where Peak has its headquarters.

The company owns 21 nursing homes in Oklahoma and 38 nationally.

The clause is being used against a Tulsa woman whose mother was molested in one of the company's nursing homes.

``Clearly this is not something that should be allowed to stand ... It's unconscionable,'' said Esther Houser, the state long-term-care ombudsman.

Peak Medical said it is only trying to deal with an increasing number of lawsuits against nursing homes.

The company has filed a federal lawsuit against Sheila Collins, whose mother was abused in one of the company's nursing homes. The lawsuit seeks to force Collins to drop her lawsuit against Peak in Tulsa District Court and abide by the arbitration clause.

Collins signed the contract when she admitted her 45-year-old mother to the Mayfair Nursing Home in Tulsa.

Collins' mother, an invalid due to a head injury, was molested at the home on Aug. 24.

Kevin Eric Cooper, 25, was arrested after an employee reported seeing him acting inappropriately in a resident's room. Cooper was charged with sexual abuse by a caretaker but pleaded guilty to felony abuse following a plea bargain.

Oklahoma's Nursing Home Care Act forbids waiver agreements such as the one Peak uses. The Attorney General's office is reviewing the matter and may intervene.

Scott Sauder, general counsel for Peak, said the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld such arbitration contracts.

The Health Department does not examine such contracts during its inspection process, said Dorya Huser, chief of long-term care for the department.

Houser said that would be a good idea.

``I am very sad that we don't pick up on that kind of inappropriate contract in our enforcement processes.''

Wes Bledsoe, founder of the nonprofit group A Perfect Cause, said Peak Medical should drop the clause from its contract and rescind it from existing ones.

``This is a stressful time for families when they admit their loved ones into nursing homes ... and for any corporation to take advantage of families that are in that state to put in such language into a contract is reprehensible,'' Bledsoe said.

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