A Much Needed Expose of What Some of Us Already Know
In a prominently displayed, above the fold, article today entitled “How Nursing Homes Hide Their Most Serious Lapses,” New York Times writers laid out a case against the CMS process for inspecting and rating nursing homes on their 5-Star rating system (with 1 being the worst and 5 the best). Those of us dealing regularly through research or advocacy with nursing homes, state agencies, and CMS are not surprised by what these investigators uncovered and I, for one, am happy to see the public informed about the sham 5-Star system.
Essentially, the NYT investigative journalists concluded that serious infractions uncovered in inspections often do not appear in reports on the CMS website “Nursing Home Compare,” and frequently immediate jeopardy and actual harm findings are appealed by the operators in a secretive administrative hearing process from which families are excluded. So what you see on the CMS website is often not what you get. Even if serious infractions make it into the public inspection reports on NHC, they often don’t affect a facilities 5-Star rating.
The Most Important Take Away: Agencies of Government Are Under The Thumb of The Industry
The nature of the appeals process in which owners can hang up a finding for a year or more behind a veil of secrecy often keeps the public in the dark about some very serious negligence and abuse cases in facilities in which our loved ones reside or are about to be placed. A former CMS attorney quoted in the article said this: “Once I realized that people wouldn’t see cases that are on appeal, I thought, why would anyone ever look at this again.” Presumably, he is saying you might never know that an inspector found your frail elderly mother laying in a pool of blood in the parking lot, or that a the staff placed a patient with a positive test for COVID in the room with your grandfather.
Here is the dirty little secret about government agencies such as CMS and the various state agencies charged with regulating nursing homes and protecting patients and looking after the interests of the taxpaying public: they work for the industry. That is who they protect. I have spent years trying to pry needed – and what should be public – information out of the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services (KDADS), CMS, and other various and sundry regulatory agencies. They will stonewall like no agency of government that has gone before them has stonewalled. I swear, if you called KDADS and asked for their address, they would tell you to file a Kansas Open Records request. If you ask for anything more serious than that, even a KORA won’t get it for you.
I have heard staff members at KDADs claim that the industry isn’t reimbursed well enough and is struggling financially, which is absolutely false – that is why these agencies hide financial information from the public. But public information you can find tells a totally different story than what you hear from the industry and their shills in government.
Flaws in The Article: The Writers Didn’t Talk to The Right People And A Less Than Serious Research Claim
Only a couple of “experts” were quoted in the article: the former attorney for CMS mentioned above and Dr. David Gifford, the medical director for the industry and a corporate shill. The people I respect and the people with real knowledge of how the system works are experts like Professor Charlene Harrington (UCSF), Richard Malott with the Long-Term Care Community Coalition, Lori Smetanka with the National Consumer Voice, Lydia Nunez – an Ombudsman from Texas, Margaret Farley and Lenette Hamm with Kansas Advocates for Better Care and others who fight nursing home inspection/quality problems day in and day out.
The NYT writers claimed that “researchers have found a connection between better inspection results and greater profits.” That makes absolutely no sense to me. Given the solid financial data we have – which is only for publicly listed companies – that is not what I would conclude. Some very profitable operations are providing very poor care.
Furthermore, the article indicated that “The Times analyzed nursing homes’ financial statements from 2019 and found that four- and five-Star facilities were much more profitable than lower-rated facilities.” I would like to know where they found the needed financial information from closely held corporations to make that determination. Did they see an income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statement? If they did, I would like to know where they found them. I’m very skeptical of this research. Using a qualitative, ranking measure as a predictor of profit – a measure with equal intervals – is sketchy to say the least. The ranking data from inspections give noisy data a whole new meaning.
Nevertheless, I was happy to see the article appear in the NYT. We need to debunk so much of what is purveyed by the industry and the government in regard to the safety and health of patients in nursing homes.