Monday, February 22, 2010

Bed bugs go undetected? No state money for hotel inspections.

Bed bugs go undetected? No state money for hotel inspections.

Becky Andrews checked into the Super 8 hotel in Bonner Springs last fall as she prepared to watch her son act in a play at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

For Andrews, a retired high school chemistry teacher from Colorado, the night turned into an ordeal.

"I had this sensation of things crawling on me, but I never saw anything," she said. "It took a long time for me to realize what was going on."

After several "itchy-twitchy" hours, she said, she captured a live bug in a plastic cup and took it to the front desk the next morning to complain.

She said that when the hotel didn't appear to take her seriously, she filed a complaint with the state.

A Kansas Department of Agriculture inspector visited the hotel on Nov. 3 and confirmed that Room 406 was infested with bed bugs.

The hotel was ordered to fix the problem, and a follow-up inspection was scheduled for Dec. 3. But the follow-up never occurred.

The state announced that day it was suspending its lodging inspection program because of budget cuts.

In Kansas today, no government agency is working to ensure that hotel rooms are free of bed bugs, showers are free of mildew, evacuation routes are conspicuously posted, and drinking glasses are properly prepackaged.

"This is the painful reality of our current economic climate," Josh Svaty, acting agriculture secretary, said in a news release issued that day.

"Whether the department will be able to resume inspections will depend on future funding levels."

In what has turned out to be a tight budget year, it seems unlikely that the state will find the $240,000 it needs to fund the lodging inspection program for another year.

Andrews said she finds that unsettling.

"If you just go to a regular, normal hotel and inspect a room, I don't know what you're going to find," she said. "But I sure think that any time you have a complaint, there should be an inspection. And then a follow-up to make sure management is taking care of the problem."

Hotel law

In Kansas, hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfasts are governed by the Lodging Establishment Regulations, a 54-page document that regulates the water temperature in hot tubs, the liners used in ice buckets, and the markings that delineate the deep and shallow ends of hotel swimming pools, among other things.

The Kansas Department of Agriculture licenses more than 800 lodging facilities, and until last year each of those was required to submit to an annual inspection focusing on safety and sanitation issues.

Under the system, each violation was noted in an inspection report, and follow-up inspections were scheduled when problems couldn't be corrected immediately. About 11 percent of last year's inspections required follow-up visits.

In addition to the routine inspections, the Department of Agriculture last year investigated 132 lodging complaints, 35 of which involved bed bugs. Inspectors said 11 of the bed bug complaints — including the one submitted by Andrews — were valid.

State inspectors have the authority to shut down an establishment that poses an "imminent health hazard" involving fire, flood, sewage backup, rodent infestation, bed bug infestation or "any other condition that could endanger the health and safety of guests, employees and the general public."

Last year, imminent health hazard violations were issued 24 times. Six of the violations involved bed bugs.

Constantine Cotsoradis, deputy agriculture secretary, said that discontinue-operations orders, particularly in bed bug cases, usually apply only to areas of a hotel affected by the problem.

"We want to protect the public but do as little economic harm as possible to the business," he said.

State law gives regulators the authority to impose civil penalties on establishments that experience repeated violations. Last year such a penalty was imposed only once — a $1,350 penalty assessed to the Knights Inn and Suites in Leavenworth.

During its final 12 months of operation — December 2008 through November 2009 — the state's lodging inspection program sent inspectors to nearly 800 businesses, and most inspections uncovered at least some violations.

The businesses collectively were cited for 3,251 violations including soiled linens, moldy showers, and unsafe levels of chlorine in swimming pools.

The most common violations — those dealing with smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers — accounted for nearly 20 percent of the total.

Hotels' perspective

Don Sayler, president of the Kansas Restaurant & Hospitality Association, said hotel and motel managers usually have no control over bed bug infestations.

While cleanliness and attention to detail will keep a hotel in line with most state regulations, Sayler said, bed bug infestations typically occur randomly when the bugs are brought into a room in the luggage of a guest.

"It's not a huge issue, but obviously it's a problem anytime you have them because they are hard to get rid of," he said.

The manager of the Super 8 hotel referred questions about the bugs to a spokeswoman who did not return a message left on her cell phone.

The hotel had a perfect score when it was inspected in August, four months before Andrews' visit.

Sayler said his organization would like to see lodging inspections resumed, though on a scaled-back basis. Until a few years ago, he said, the state stepped in only after receiving a complaint from a guest. It wasn't until about four years ago, he said, that the state began conducting annual inspections of all hotels and motels.

Sayler said chain hotels have their own inspectors, who make annual or semi-annual inspections that are more rigorous than those conducted by the state.

"There is some type of oversight going on over and above what state had been doing," he said.

But he said he thinks there needs to be some state involvement.

"We don't want to be a totally unregulated industry," he said. "We think that people need to have somebody to call if there's a problem.

"We think there needs to be a venue where they can go to say, 'I've got a complaint.' "

Andrews noted that an in-house inspection that uncovered bed bugs probably wouldn't be detailed in a public inspection report.

Sayler and Cotsoradis both said they support a bill that has been introduced in the Kansas Legislature that would at least reinstate inspections after complaints are received.

"It's going to take funding, so that's really the key point at this time," Cotsoradis said.

Andrews' experience

Andrews said that after her encounter with bed bugs at the Super 8 hotel, she became a student of the species. She said half of humans show no reaction when exposed to bed bugs, which explains why her husband felt no ill effects during his stay at the hotel.

Andrews, on the other hand, said she felt the full wrath of the bugs.

"I'm like a canary in a coal mine for bed bugs," she said. "I just broke out in welts all over my throat and chest and arms."

The Wichita Eagle