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Fingerprint-Supported Web Portal Helps Kentucky Protect Vulnerable Citizens

The portal pulls state and federal law enforcement data on health-care job-seekers, adding another layer of protection that identifies prospective workers hiding illegal or abusive acts committed in other states.

Kentucky is seeking to implement more stringent criminal records searches for those wanting to care for some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens. Though still in the embryonic stage, the Kentucky Applicant Registry and Employment Screening program, or KARES, is another layer of protection aimed at weeding out prospective care workers hiding illegal or abusive deeds committed in other states.

The new high-tech background check program is a pre-hiring fingerprint-supported state and FBI Web portal available to long-term care facilities and employers. The portal was created to support the Kentucky National Background Check Program, a state effort intended to help reduce the potential for abuse — including financial exploitation — of elderly and vulnerable adults.

In August 2013, the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS) Office of Inspector General launched a website for KARES, meant to supplement screening that providers currently must perform, said Al Ervin, business analyst for the office of administrative technology at CHFS.

A pilot venture kicked off last May, with 24 long-term care facilities across the state sending applicants to 35 fingerprint collection sites. Kentucky is one of 25 states to receive a $4 million grant from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to fund the program.

“Our goal with the pilot was to keep it to a limited number of participants in a controlled environment,” Ervin said.  

The LiveScan electronic fingerprint units, provided by Virginia-based biometic and identity solution company MorphoTrak, are kept at three dozen employment training centers. The fingerprint scanning process takes about 30 minutes, after which applicant data is transmitted to local police and FBI offices. Results come back within 24 to 72 hours.

Employers eligible for the service include assisted living communities, home health agencies, hospices and nursing facilities. Under the program, backed by the Kentucky State Police among others, candidates seeking long-term care employment will no longer be able to hide criminal activity committed in other states, noted CHFS Inspector General Maryellen Mynear.

Workers subject to a background check under KARES have one-on-one contact with patients, said Mynear. This includes volunteers providing direct services similar to that of a paid worker.

During the program’s pilot phase, KARES proved it worked. The system made several ineligible rulings on individuals based on past criminal history. Among the disqualifying offenses are felonies related to sexual or violent crimes, as well as criminal abuse that involves a child or adult. Activity involving theft and embezzlement will also keep wannabe workers out of long-term care facilities.

“We’re trying to prevent any kind of abuse, exploitation or neglect of the elderly,” Mynear said. “There are many ways our patients can be taken advantage of.”

Before KARES, state law required caregivers to use only name-based background checks conducted by state police or the Administrative Office of the Courts. A semblance of change in this procedure came in 2011 with the reinvigoration of a state-sponsored elder abuse prevention task force, initially created to strengthen support of a care facility system wracked by stories of neglect and ill treatment of patients. In 2007, the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services received 45,048 reports of adult abuse, 9,660 of which were for persons ages 60 and older, according to CHFS.

Discussions about adding a comprehensive fingerprint-based vetting system began in 2011 when the state Office of Inspector General (OIG) applied for grant funding. It took several years of development to integrate KARES into state employment centers. Ervin reports that the technology has been well received by participants since the pilot launched in spring 2014.

“It’s a simple, user-friendly platform to work with,” he said. “There have been no problems using the system or with the hiring of applicants.”

Challenges Ahead

That’s not to say there aren’t issues to smooth out before a statewide rollout of the KARES program takes place. For example, three dozen fingerprinting locations are not nearly enough for the state’s 120 counties, according to officials. Filling those gaps will likely mean buying more equipment or sharing resources across agencies. In addition, the OIG will have to address accessibility issues for scanning stations located in counties with geographical impediments like mountains that make them harder to reach.

Meanwhile, Kentucky lawmakers are considering a bill that would make the multi-state background check a mandatory program for long-term care settings. Proceedings on the bill, which the OIG will present to the Kentucky General Assembly this year, are expected to delay wider implementation of KARES until at least mid-2015, Ervin said.

LeadingAge Kentucky, a nonprofit overseeing 110 nursing services, intermediate care facilities for the developmentally disabled and continuing care retirement communities, would be more enthusiastic about supporting KARES if the service widened its scope, according to President Tim Veno.

Even then, some elder care providers are reluctant to switch from the current system, as the OIG has yet to provide enough evidence of how fingerprinting would keep lawbreakers from falling through the cracks, Veno said. Some facilities under his organization’s auspices already go beyond the current name- and Social Security number-based process, requiring aspirant workers to also take drug tests.

“Our members are asking why we have to abandon what we’re doing and go into this new system,” said Veno. “It’s the need that’s been difficult to communicate.”

LeadingAge would like to work with the OIG on fixing these problems, as the benefits of KARES are clear. “The [program] is a one-stop shop for all background check needs,” Veno said. “We want to encourage our members to test it out and see if it’s a solution for them.”

Kentucky is surrounded by seven states filled with people willing to cross state lines to find a job. The KARES program is a necessity in an industry that cannot afford to be wrong about the character of its employees, said Ervin. Should KARES find its footing, he can envision the service expanding into a “clearinghouse” similar to that of Florida, which has a centralized fingerprint-centric criminal background check system that shares employee information among specified agencies.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg for us right now,” said Ervin. “Anyone who wants to participate, just knock on our door and let’s do it.”

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland-based writer and journalist. He has written stories about technology, alternative energies and the environment for local and regional publications including Midwest Energy News, hiVelocity magazine and Fresh Water Cleveland.