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Lawmaker seeks federal probe after Rome maggot report

Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi of Utica (left) speaks, while Walter Wenger of Canastota listens, across the road from the state supervised group home where Wenger's son Steve was a patient./ Provided photo

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A New York state lawmaker is demanding a federal investigation into New York state's care for the disabled following a recent Associated Press story that revealed the case of a man infested with maggots in a state-run group home.

Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, of Utica, told the AP on Saturday that he is asking the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to investigate the group home and other state-regulated facilities for the disabled where there have been allegations of abuse and neglect.

"It's clear from seeing this that New York state cannot be relied on to police itself," said Brindisi, who is running for Congress. "When you have thousands of cases (of abuse and neglect) happening across the state — this being one of the most egregious — we must give some reassurance to families that their loved ones are being taken care of."

The call for a federal probe comes after the AP published a story Thursday showing that it's often easier to find health and safety information for local restaurants than it is to learn about conditions at facilities serving approximately 1 million of the state's most vulnerable residents.

RELATED | AP Exclusive: Rome maggot case gives rare look at neglect probes

Forty-one-year-old Steven Wenger was twice found to have maggots crawling around his breathing tube in a state-owned and -operated small group home in Rome, New York, last summer. Wenger cannot walk, talk or feed himself after suffering severe brain trauma in a 1991 car crash.

A state investigation concluded that the infestation was the result of neglect and that caregivers failed to properly clean the site of Wenger's breathing tube. Yet no caregivers were disciplined and the report on the case was made confidential. The agency in charge of the facility says it did increase training for staff. Wenger is now being cared for in a different facility.

A copy of the report was obtained by the AP, which found that New York state is not alone in making it difficult for members of the public to access records about allegations of abuse and neglect in state-regulated facilities for the disabled. In New York, the Justice Center is tasked with investigating cases related to the care of approximately 1 million New Yorkers.

Brindisi said he sought details about Wenger's case earlier this year after the man's father contacted him with concerns about his son's care. He said officials at the Justice Center told him that the case was closed and that Wenger's father was satisfied with the results — something that wasn't the case.

"There has to be more transparency by the Justice Center," he said.

Asked about Brindisi's comments, Justice Center spokesman William Reynolds said Saturday the agency regularly works with federal officials "and will continue to do so as needed."

The Justice Center conducted an "exhaustive" review of the incident but could not assign responsibility to any specific staff members.

You can see the full text of Brindisi's letter below:

Dear Secretary Price,

I write today with great urgency as it concerns the State of New York and its long-term care medical facilities, like one in Rome New York that the Associated Press just detailed in a bombshell story that highlighted troubling conditions and patient neglect. I have included a print-out of this story with this letter.

As you can see, the patient, Steve Wenger, was left permanently disabled, unable to speak or breathe on his own ever since a car accident 26 years ago. He breathes only because he is connected to a tracheostomy. It has been revealed that—more than once—this tracheostomy was infested with maggots. This kind of situation could only present itself after days of neglect, according to medical experts.

Therefore, the reason for this letter is to urge your agency to take a deeper look in to the way New York State runs this Rome facility, and others under its purview that have generated over 4,000 substantiated cases of abuse and neglect last year alone.

Your agency can and should lead the way at cracking down on abuse and neglect in facilities like these because patients are unable to speak for themselves. Situations like these, and New York’s own secret-keeping, are why we need the federal government and why your leadership on this critical issue is so important to America.

I urge you to, again, read the story herein and feel free to reach out to me with any questions. I have sought my own answers on this case and will continue to look for ways I can hold New York State’s feet to the fire, but New Yorkers could sure use your help.

A swift and comprehensive investigation by you and your team would surely get the ball rolling, while giving so many families facts they deserve.

Sincerely,

Anthony Brindisi

Member, New York State Assembly

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