SALT LAKE CITY — Laurel Barrus' father was 89 and living in a skilled nursing facility when, one night, she said he was left for eight hours without his oxygen.
"The heart struggles for air — there's not enough — and then he threw a clot," Barrus said.
Her father died shortly after. Barrus blames nursing staff at the $7,000-a-month skilled nursing facility who were supposed to check on him every two hours.
"If there had been a camera on him, he would have been checked every two hours," Barrus said.
Her husband, Roger, a former state representative, sponsored a failed bill in 2014 that would have allowed residents of assisted living facilities to put monitoring equipment in their rooms. The bill will get a second chance in this year's legislative sessions.
Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, is backing HB124, which would expressly permit residents of assisted living facilities — or their representatives — to install cameras, microphones or other monitoring devices in their rooms.
"Its primary value, to be honest, is deterrence," Hawkes said.
"If you're a criminal that’s victimizing elderly people and you see a sign that says you can be monitored and recorded, I think you’re probably going to walk on by," he added.
Jared Nye, the president of the Utah Assisted Living Association, said the group has concerns about the bill.
"Some of our buildings, we'll have security cameras throughout the building, but to actually have one in the resident's room — we worry about the privacy of the resident themselves," Nye said. "That's their home."
In assisted living and other long-term care facilities, caretakers may help residents eat, bathe, dress or use the bathroom. Nurses come and go, as do roommates and visitors.
At stake is the question of how to balance the safety of a loved one against his or her right to privacy — and the privacy of others who may be in the room.
Hawkes' proposed bill specifies that any roommates must give written consent before residents can install monitoring equipment.
The bill also specifies that the assisted living facility must be notified and may require the resident to put a sign near the entrance of the room to warn people that the room is being monitored.
Nye said the issue has become more prominent in recent years due to growing concerns about abuse and theft in long-term care facilities.
Four states — Texas, New Mexico, Washington and Oklahoma — already expressly allow electronic monitoring in long-term care facilities under certain conditions.
Randy Dryer, a law professor at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah, said the discussion is part of a broader shift in how Americans think about privacy.
The questions in this case are the same ones at play in controversies over body cameras on police, drones that record video, automatic license plate readers and government surveillance of cellphones, he said.
"Clearly, the areas of one's life that are considered truly private is shrinking dramatically," Dryer said. "So the issue is, not only do we have less privacy than we used to have before, but the issue of what's the purpose of the surveillance."6 comments on this story
The issue can be particularly thorny if the resident is disabled or incapable of giving consent, Dryer said. That puts children and relatives in the position of deciding whether or not their loved one would want to be recorded in some of their most intimate moments.
Dryer, who has not read the bill, said another question to consider is who retains the recordings and whether they're stored in a safe place. Can footage be shared with others? How long should these recordings be maintained? And who ultimately owns them?
"The issue is more complicated than just saying, 'OK, if everyone consents to it and is on notice, then there's no problem," Dryer said.
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