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Failure of Nursing Home Safety Monitoring

Summary: NY Times research found a huge gap between safety problems found in nursing homes and the public reporting of those problems. Quality star ratings are misleading. Consumers are not being protected.

How Nursing Homes’ Worst Offenses Are Hidden From the Public
New York Times
Dec. 9, 2021
By Robert Gebeloff, Katie Thomas, & Jessica Silver-Greenberg

A New York Times investigation found that at least 2,700 similarly dangerous incidents were also not factored into the rating system [Care Compare] run by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or C.M.S., which is designed to give people reliable information to evaluate the safety and quality of thousands of nursing homes.

Oklahoma’s inspections agency referred to nursing homes as its ‘clients,’ according to a letter from the agency reviewed by The Times. Inspectors in Pennsylvania complained about being told to be ‘kinder and gentler’ with nursing homes, according to the 2013 survey. Last year, in the depths of the pandemic, the California department of health told inspectors to act as safety “consultants” to nursing homes and to not take on an enforcement role. (The policy was scrapped after inspectors objected.)

Jonathan Blum, the chief operating officer for C.M.S., said that citations are omitted during state-level appeals to be fair to nursing homes that are disputing inspectors’ findings. He acknowledged that even after appeals are exhausted, some citations still don’t appear on Care Compare. He said C.M.S. is ‘working to correct this issue.’

The Times asked public health agencies in all 50 states how often citations were upheld, reduced in severity or deleted entirely since 2016. Eighteen states provided figures. About 37 percent of the time, the nursing homes succeeded in getting citations removed or reduced in severity.

Studies have found that federal inspectors tend to find more serious problems than their state counterparts during these examinations. But the Medicare agency does not publish the reports of its own inspectors — even when they turn up dangerous or deadly conditions — or factor them into homes’ star ratings.

Comment by: Allison K. Hoffman

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the depths of problems in U.S. nursing homes, but it is also clear that nursing homes have had serious deficiencies leading up to the pandemic. Worse, even when these problems are uncovered, they are sometimes later buried. There are many reasons why nursing homes became an epicenter for the pandemic, but one has been well illuminated by recent New York Times reporting: the failure of regulatory monitoring and reporting systems, including Care Compare and star ratings, which were intended to reflect nursing home quality.

These types of ratings systems are part of a consumerist turn in health care, based on the idea that with all the right information, patients will be able to navigate the system to choose among care providers and balance things like quality and price. There are many flaws in these assumptions. The N.Y. Times reporting over the past year shows that one necessary piece of the consumerist model is completely lacking: the quality of information to inform decisionmaking. This article, in particular, illuminates the fact that even after major problems were uncovered in surveys and inspections, nursing homes had too many tools to keep those problems from coming to light and eventually making it into Care Compare. The problems don’t harm their star ratings – a scale from 1 to 5 that is supposed to—but often fails to— indicate nursing home quality.

The failure of these ratings to capture what is actually happening in settings where residents often cannot advocate for themselves is tragic. When the faults in such a system intersect with a pandemic, people who think they have chosen quality nursing homes for loved ones learning that they are tragically wrong.

Even the best nursing homes went through extremely trying times over the past two years. But some nursing homes began this period in a state of poor oversight, management, staffing, and operations that never should have been tolerated.

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