State lawmakers considering legislation to protect patients after case of serial killer nurse

HARRISBURG, Pa. — State lawmakers are taking steps to try to protect vulnerable residents living in nursing home facilities. It comes after a former nurse was sentenced for harming and killing patients at nursing homes across several local counties.

Heather Pressdee is serving multiple life sentences with no chance of parole. She accepted a plea deal, admitting to injecting nursing home residents with insulin, choosing who lived and who died. Eighteen patients died. Four are still alive but disabled.

>> Killer nurse pleads guilty to killing, harming care home residents with insulin

For the families of the victims of the former nurse, their memories are all they have left. In early May, dozens of family members packed a Butler County courtroom during victim impact statements. Their stories were impactful and emotional.

They mourned, to name a few, a 43-year-old man who doctors once called a miracle, a 99-year-old woman who stayed loyal to her Steelers and Pirates all her life, a 104-year-old great-great-grandmother who loved cooking for others and had a sweet tooth herself and a 79-year-old man who was the recipient of a Purple Heart.

“We absolutely need to do more,” said State Representative Rob Mercuri. “We need to make sure that our system has checks and balances to protect this from ever happening again.”

Mercuri represents Allegheny County, home to one of the facilities Pressdee worked for. She was reported, suspended, fired and resigned repeatedly but kept getting hired by other facilities.

According to a criminal complaint, in February 2022 an Allegheny Valley Hospital Doctor became worried after treating two patients from Belair Healthcare, both for hypoglycemic incidents. The doctor noticed Pressdee was listed as the facility nurse for both patients and alerted the state that a nurse may be intentionally harming patients.

11 Investigates learned the Department of Health and the Department of State made a joint referral to the Attorney General’s Office but not until December of that year.

At least six residents died in the months between. At least six more died before Pressdee was arrested in May, following an investigation by the AG’s Office.

“Are you concerned by that delay?” investigative reporter Jatara McGee asked Mercuri.

“I am very concerned by that delay and that’s something that we are also looking into,” Mercuri said.

11 Investigates has reached out to a number of local representatives to ask if they’re proposing changes or considering taking action to close the loopholes that helped Pressdee continue as a nurse for years, all while harming patients.

Mercuri is one of two who responded and are taking action. Many others declined to comment.

Senator Lindsey Williams’ office tells 11 Investigates she has “requested meetings with both the Department of Health and the Department of State to find out what can be done legislatively to both protect patients and to prevent tragedies like these from happening again in the future. Senator Williams believes that the state has a responsibility to protect patients and if the current system isn’t doing exactly that, it needs to be changed.”

Mercuri believes state databases for people who abuse the vulnerable could be key to protecting Pennsylvania’s vulnerable populations, including nursing home residents and foster children.

“We just need better data and data-sharing across agencies, and we can prevent this from happening again,” he said.

He is also supporting senate bill 885 which would establish a statewide registry for people who are found to have abused seniors. Sen. Doug Mastriano is the lead sponsor.

11 Investigates asked Mercuri if the bill goes far enough. If in place, it likely would not have stopped Pressdee, because the allegations against her were not fully investigated for several years.

“The difficulty is innocent ‘til proven guilty,” Mercuri said.

Advocates believe Pennsylvania needs to look to New Jersey for guidance in passing new laws to protect elderly patients and stop health care workers with bad intentions.

“There’s no real red flag system, said Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association. “And that’s why she was able or one of the primary reasons why she was able to go from provider to provider to provider.”

Lawmakers in New Jersey passed legislation after ICU nurse Charles Cullen confessed to murder in 2003. He had moved from hospital to hospital, in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, killing patients until 2003. State law now requires providers to report employee misconduct to a state clearinghouse.

Shamberg believes the Cullen Law should be Pennsylvania’s blueprint.

Mercuri said it is being considered, and they are currently studying the legislation. He also warned that meaningful change will take time, likely a year or years to move through the system.

“Thank you for bringing light to this situation, and we’re committed to staying involved,” he said.

Sadly, any change will come too late for the families of Pressdee’s victims, but reform could save lives in the future.

All of the state departments mentioned declined our requests for sit-down interviews.

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