When it becomes necessary to look for nursing home placement for a loved one, the Nursing Home Compare tool on the medicare.gov website is an important starting point for screening facilities. However, it is only a starting point and it has serious shortcomings. It is necessary to do further investigating and review prospective placements.
Effective February 20, 2015, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) made some changes to Nursing Home Compare. The Quality Measures (QMs) were recalibrated, antipsychotic drug use was factored into the QM star rating, and staffing criteria were changed. These changes made the tool better, but far from excellent.
Three measures are rated: (1) health survey measure, based on unannounced annual surveys and complaint surveys conducted by state survey agencies; (2) staffing, based on self-reported nurse staffing, and (3) QMs, based on resident assessments. The weakness in the rating system is reflected in the high scores prior to the latest round of improvements. Approximately 80% of facilities received four or five stars on their QMs because high scores on the self-reported staffing measure and QMs will inflate a facility’s overall rating. According to The New York Times there was considerable gaming of the rating system. Katie Thomas, “Ratings Allow Nursing Homes To Game System; Medicare’s Five Stars; Data Taken at Face Value Often Fails to Reflect Real Conditions,” The New York Times, page 1 (Aug. 25, 2014),
The new changes include recalibration of the QMs to identify the number of points to achieve different star ratings. CMS claims that the change will raise the standard for skilled-care or long-term care facilities and differentiate the facilities to make the system more accurate. In 2009 only one in ten facilities received five stars and one- through four-star ratings were roughly equal. By 2013, one-star ratings had decreased by approximately 85% and five star ratings had increased from 10% to 35%. This is like a school that consistently awards A grades to 35% of the students. No matter how you slice it, no more than half of any student body can be above average and no more than half of LTCFs should be graded at three stars or better. After recalibration, half of all facilities will still be receiving four or five stars on QMs, which indicates a rigged system.
Four-star staffing ratings are awarded to facilities that score four stars on both the registered nurse component and the staffing category. A facility cannot receive a four-star staffing rating if either of the individual measures is three stars. Staffing had been self-graded by the facilities, which made it an unreliable measure of quality, but CMS has announced that it would require facilities to submit direct-care staffing information electronically.
All this suggests that medicare.gov ratings may not be relied on exclusively in choosing a nursing home. The ratings are very approximate and are based on sporadic inspections by an under-staffed federal agency.
It is necessary for the family to investigate beyond looking at the ratings. This involves visiting facilities, talking to residents’ families and employees, checking reviews on the Internet and consulting a geriatric care manager if the family can afford it.
It is not sufficient to rely on the hospital social work staff. Hospital discharge planners are generally overworked and may be under great pressure to empty hospital beds for new admissions. On Friday afternoons, discharge planners are expected to clear as many beds as possible for weekend admissions. At such times, discharge “planning” often consists of finding the first skilled nursing facility that will take the patient.
Presumably, the Joint Commission www.jointcommission.org provides a standard for discharge planning, but there is almost no way for someone who is not in hospital administration to review the standard and demand that the service be properly delivered. This places the responsibility for finding a good rehabilitation facility or nursing home squarely on the shoulders of the patient’s family and friends.
While visiting skilled care and nursing facilities, try to observe resident-staff interactions, as well as the cleanliness of the facility. Take time to talk to residents and see whether those who appear distressed receive prompt care.
The 1987 Nursing Home Reform Law includes many guaranteed rights for nursing home residents:
A) The right to be fully informed of available services and the charges for them, facility rules and regulations, including a written copy of resident rights, contact information for the state ombudsman and state survey agency, state survey reports and the nursing home’s plan of correction, advance notice of a change in rooms or roommates, assistance if a sensory impairment exists, and the right to receive information in a language they understand.
B) The right to present grievances without fear of reprisal and with prompt resolution by the facility, to complain to the ombudsman program, to file a complaint with the state survey and certification agency, and to participate in the resident’s own care.
C) The right to receive adequate and appropriate care, to be informed of changes in medical condition, to participate in assessment, care-planning, treatment, and discharge, to refuse medication, chemical and physical restraints, and treatment.
D) The right to private and unrestricted communication with anyone regarding medical, personal, or financial affairs, and to refuse visits.
E) The right to remain in the nursing facility unless a transfer or discharge is for good cause and is preceded by adequate notice and due process.
F) The right to be treated with consideration, respect, and dignity, free of mental and physical abuse, corporal punishment, involuntary seclusion, and physical and chemical restraints, to self-determination and security of possessions, and to visits by the resident’s personal physician, representatives from the state survey agency and ombudsman programs, and by relatives, friends, and others of the residents’ choosing.
When visiting facilities, enquire of the admissions and administration representatives, other visitors, and staff about the facilities’ attention to resident rights. Most facilities allow free access to lobbies and common areas in the facility. It should be possible to talk to a variety of staff, contractors providing services, and other visitors. If the facility restricts access, that may be a sign that the care they provide is substandard.
Almost no one wants to go to a nursing home, but there is a high probability that the patient in skilled care will go to an LTCF at the end of rehabilitation, not home. One of the most important criteria in choosing a rehabilitation or skilled-care facility (SNF) is whether all beds are certified for both Medicare and Medicaid. Many SNFs use up the patient’s highly-profitable Medicare days, then tell the family to search elsewhere for a Medicaid bed. This makes it very difficult to find a preferred placement. Facilities are eager to accept patients who are eligible for the 20 to 100 days of skilled care that Medicare covers, but will turn away persons who rely on Medicaid.
Finding good care is a complex process. Engaging a fee-paid geriatric care manager is worth many times the cost. They can be located through the National Association of Geriatric Care Managers. An experienced elder law attorney can also be very helpful.
John B. Payne, Attorney
Garrison LawHouse, PC
Dearborn, Michigan 313.563.4900
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 800.220.7200
©2016 John B. Payne, Attorney