nursing homes

Jordan Rau: Feds cracking down on short-staffed nursing homes

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From Kaiser Health News

The federal government accelerated its crackdown on nursing homes that go days without a registered nurse by downgrading the rankings of a tenth of the nation’s homes on Medicare’s consumer website, new records show.

In its update in April to Nursing Home Compare, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services gave its lowest star rating for staffing — one star on its five-star scale — to 1,638 homes. Most were downgraded because their payroll records reported no registered-nurse hours at all for four days or more, while the remainder failed to submit their payroll records or sent data that couldn’t be verified through an audit.

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If you would like a copy of this data, please email elucas@kff.org

“Once you’re past four days [without registered nursing], it’s probably beyond calling in sick,” said David Grabowski, a health policy professor at Harvard Medical School. “It’s probably a systemic problem.”

It was a tougher standard than Medicare had previously applied, when it demoted nursing homes with seven or more days without a registered nurse.

“Nurse staffing has the greatest impact on the quality of care nursing homes deliver, which is why CMS analyzed the relationship between staffing levels and outcomes,” the agency announced in March. “CMS found that as staffing levels increase, quality increases.”

The latest batch of payroll records, released in April, shows that even more nursing homes fell short of Medicare’s requirement that a registered nurse be on-site at least eight hours every day. Over the final three months of 2018, 2,633 of the nation’s 15,563 nursing homes reported that for four or more days, registered nurses worked fewer than eight hours, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis. Those facilities did not meet Medicare’s requirement even after counting nurses whose jobs are primarily administrative.

CMS has been alarmed at the frequency of understaffing of registered nurses — the most highly trained category of nurses in a home — since the government last year began requiring homes to submit payroll records to verify staffing levels. Before that, Nursing Home Compare relied on two-week snapshots nursing homes reported to health inspectors when they visited — a method officials worried was too easy to manipulate. The records show staffing on weekends is often particularly anemic.

CMS’s demotion of ratings on staffing is not as severe as it might seem, however. More than half of those homes were given a higher rating than one star for their overall assessment after CMS weighed inspection results and the facilities’ own measurement of residents’ health improvements.

That overall rating is the one that garners the most attention on Nursing Home Compare and that some hospitals use when recommending where discharged patients might go. Of the 1,638 demoted nursing homes, 277 were rated as average in overall quality (three stars), 175 received four stars, and 48 received the top rating of five stars.

Still, CMS’s overall changes to how the government assigns stars drew protests from nursing home groups. The American Health Care Association, a trade group for nursing homes, calculated that 36% of homes saw a drop in their ratings while 15% received improved ratings.

“By moving the scoring ‘goal posts’ for two components of the Five-Star system,” the association wrote, “CMS will cause more than 30 percent of nursing centers nationwide to lose one or more stars overnight — even though nothing changed in staffing levels and in quality of care, which is still being practiced and delivered every day.”

The association said in an email that the payroll records might exaggerate the absence of staff through unintentional omissions that homes make when submitting the data or because of problems on the government’s end. The association said it had raised concerns that salaried nurses face obstacles in recording time they worked above 40 hours a week. Also, the association added, homes must deduct a half-hour for every eight-hour shift for a meal break, even if the nurse worked through it.

“Some of our member nursing homes have told us that their data is not showing up correctly on Nursing Home Compare, making it appear that they do not have the nurses and other staff that they in fact do have on duty,” LeadingAge, an association of nonprofit medical providers including nursing homes, said last year.

Kaiser Health News has updated its interactive nursing home staffing tool with the latest data. You can use the tool to see the rating Medicare assigns to each facility for its registered nurse staffing and overall staffing levels. The tool also shows KHN-calculated ratios of patients to direct-care nurses and aides on the best- and worst-staffed days.

Jordan Rau: jrau@kff.org, @JordanRau

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Jordan Rau: Trump cuts way back on fines for nursing homes

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From Kaiser Health News

The Trump administration’s decision to alter the way it punishes nursing homes has resulted in lower fines against many facilities found to have endangered or injured residents.

The average fine dropped to $28,405 under the current administration, down from $41,260 in 2016, President Barack Obama’s final year in office, federal records show.

The decrease in fines is one of the starkest examples of how the Trump administration is rolling back Obama’s aggressive regulation of health care services in response to industry prodding.

Encouraged by the nursing home industry, the Trump administration switchedfrom fining nursing homes for each day they were out of compliance — as the Obama administration typically did — to issuing a single fine for two-thirds of infractions, the records show.

That reduces the penalties, giving nursing homes less incentive to fix faulty and dangerous practices before someone gets hurt.

“It’s not changing behavior [at nursing homes] in the way that we want,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “For a small nursing home it could be real money, but for bigger ones it’s more likely a rounding error.”

Since Trump took office, the administration has heeded multiple nursing home complaints about zealous oversight. It granted facilities an 18-month moratorium from being penalized for violating eight new health and safety rules. It also revoked an Obama-era rule barring homes from pre-emptively requiring residents to submit to arbitration to settle disputes rather than go to court.

The slide in fines occurred even as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued financial penalties 28 percent more frequently than it did under Obama. That’s due to a policy begun near the end of Obama’s term that required regulators to punish a facility every time a resident was harmed, instead of leaving it to their discretion.

While that policy increased the number of smaller fines, larger fines became less common. The total amount collected under Trump fell by 10 percent compared with the total in Obama’s final year, from $127 million under Obama to $114 million under Trump. (KHN compared penalties during 2016, Obama’s last year in office, with penalties under Trump from April 2017 through March 2018, the most recent month for which federal officials say data is reliably complete.)

CMS said it has revised multiple rules governing fines under both administrations to make its punishments fairer, more consistent and better tailored to prod homes to improve care. “We are continuing to analyze the impact of these combined events to determine if other actions are necessary,” CMS said in a statement.

The move is broadly consistent with the Trump administration’s other industry-friendly policies in the health care sector. For instance, the administration has expanded the role of short-term insurance policies that don’t cover all types of services, given states more leeway to change their Medicaid programs and urged Congress to allow physicians to open their own hospitals.

Beth Martino, a spokeswoman for the American Health Care Association, a nursing home trade group, said the federal government has “returned to a method of applying fines in a way that incentivizes solving problems” rather than penalizing “facilities that are trying to do the right thing.”

Penalty guidelines were toughened in 2014, when the Obama administration instructed officials to favor daily fines. By 2016, those were used in two-thirds of cases. Those fines averaged $61,000.

When Trump took over, the nursing home industry complained that fines had spun “out of control” and become disproportionate to the deficiencies. “We have seen a dramatic increase in [fines] being retroactively issued and used as a punishment,” Mark Parkinson, president of the nursing home group, wrote in March 2017.

CMS agreed that daily fines sometimes resulted in punishments that were determined by the random timing of an inspection rather than the severity of the infraction. If inspectors visited a home in April, for instance, and discovered an improper practice had started in February, the accumulated daily fines would be twice as much as if the inspectors had come in March.

But switching to a preference for per-instance fines means much lower penalties, since fines are capped at $21,393 whether they are levied per instance or per day. Homes that pay without contesting the fine receive a 35 percent discount, meaning they currently pay at most $13,905.

Those maximums apply even to homes found to have committed the most serious level of violations, which are known as immediate jeopardy because the home’s practices place residents at imminent risk of harm. For instance, a Mississippi nursing home was fined $13,627 after it ran out of medications because it had been relying on a pharmacy 373 miles away, in Atlanta. CMS also reduced $54,600 in daily fines to a single fine of $20,965 for a New Mexico home where workers hadn’t been properly disinfecting equipment to prevent infectious diseases from spreading.

On average, per-instance fines under Trump were below $9,000, records show.

“These are multimillion businesses — $9,000 is nothing,” said Toby Edelman, a senior policy attorney at the Center for Medicare Advocacy, a nonprofit in Washington.

Big daily fines, averaging $68,080, are still issued when a home hasn’t corrected a violation after being cited. But even in those cases, CMS officials are allowed to make exceptions and issue a single fine if the home has no history of substantial violations.

The agency cautioned that comparisons of average fines is misleading because the overall number of inspections resulting in fines increased under Trump, from 3.5 percent in 2016 to 4.7 percent. The circumstances now warranting fines that weren’t issued before tend to draw penalties on the lower side.

However, KHN found that financial penalties for immediate jeopardies were issued in fewer cases under Trump. And when they were issued, the fines averaged 18 percent less than they did in 2016.

The frequency of immediate-jeopardy fines may further decrease. CMS told inspectors in June that they were no longer required to fine facilities unless immediate-jeopardy violations resulted in “serious injury, harm, impairment or death.” Regulators still must take some action, but that could be ordering the home to arrange training from an outside group or mandating specific changes to the way the home operates.

Barbara Gay, vice president of public policy communications at LeadingAge — an association of nonprofit organizations that provide elder services, including nursing homes — said that, under Trump, nursing homes “don’t feel they’ve been given a reprieve.”

But consumer advocates say penalties have reverted to levels too low to be effective. “Fines need to be large enough to change facility behavior,” said Robyn Grant, director of public policy and advocacy at the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, a nonprofit based in Washington. “When that’s not the case and the fine is inconsequential, care generally doesn’t improve.”

Jordan Rau: jrau@kff.org, @JordanRau

Jordan Rau: Thin and erratic staffing levels at many nursing homes

 

 

From Kaiser Health News

 

ITHACA, N.Y. — Most nursing homes had fewer nurses and caretaking staff than they had reported to the government, according to new federal data, bolstering the long-held suspicions of many families that staffing levels were often inadequate.

The records for the first time reveal frequent and significant fluctuations in day-to-day staffing, with particularly large shortfalls on weekends. On the worst-staffed days at an average facility, the new data show, on-duty personnel cared for nearly twice as many residents as they did when the staffing roster was fullest.

The data, analyzed by Kaiser Health News, come from daily payroll records Medicare only recently began gathering and publishing from more than 14,000 nursing homes, as required by the Affordable Care Act of 2010. Medicare previously had been rating each facility’s staffing levels based on the homes’ own unverified reports, making it possible to game the system.

The payroll records provide the strongest evidence that, over the past decade, the government’s five-star rating system for nursing homes often exaggerated staffing levels and rarely identified the periods of thin staffing that were common. Medicare is now relying on the new data to evaluate staffing, but the revamped star ratings still mask the erratic levels of people working from day to day.

At the Beechtree Center for Rehabilitation & Nursing here, Jay Vandemark, 47, who had a stroke last year, said he often roams the halls looking for an aide not already swamped with work when he needs help putting on his shirt.

Especially on weekends, he said, “it’s almost like a ghost town.”

Nearly 1.4 million people are cared for in skilled nursing facilities in the United States. When nursing homes are short-staffed, nurses and aides scramble to deliver meals, ferry bed-bound residents to the bathroom and answer calls for pain medication. Essential medical tasks such as repositioning a patient to avert bedsores can be overlooked when workers are overburdened, sometimes leading to avoidable hospitalizations.

“Volatility means there are gaps in care,” said David Stevenson, an associate professor of health policy at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, in Nashville.  “It’s not like the day-to-day life of nursing home residents and their needs vary substantially on a weekend and a weekday. They need to get dressed, to bathe and to eat every single day.”

Dr. David Gifford, a senior vice president at the American Health Care Association, a nursing home trade group, disagreed, saying there are legitimate reasons staffing varies. On weekends, for instance, there are fewer activities for residents and more family members around, he said.

“While staffing is important, what really matters is what the overall outcomes are,” he said.

While Medicare does not set a minimum resident-to-staff ratio, it does require the presence of a registered nurse for eight hours a day and a licensed nurse at all times.

The payroll records show that even facilities that Medicare rated positively for staffing levels on its Nursing Home Compare website, including Beechtree, were short nurses and aides on some days. On its best-staffed days, Beechtree had one aide for every eight residents, while on its lowest-staffed days the ratio was 1-to-18. Nursing levels also varied.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the federal agency that oversees nursing home inspections, said in a statement that it “is concerned and taking steps to address fluctuations in staffing levels” that have emerged from the new data. This month, it said it would lower ratings for nursing homes that had gone seven or more days without a registered nurse.

Beechtree’s payroll records showed similar staffing levels to those it had reported before. David Camerota, chief operating officer of Upstate Services Group, the for-profit chain that owns Beechtree, said in a statement that the facility has enough nurses and aides to properly care for its 120 residents. But, he said, like other nursing homes, Beechtree is in “a constant battle” to recruit and retain employees even as it has increased pay to be more competitive.

Camerota wrote that weekend staffing is a special challenge as employees are guaranteed every other weekend off. “This impacts our ability to have as many staff as we would really like to have,” he wrote.

New Rating Method Is Still Flawed

In April, the government started using daily payroll reports to calculate average staffing ratings, replacing the old method, which relied on homes to report staffing for the two weeks before an inspection. The homes sometimes anticipated when an inspection would happen and could staff up before it.

The new records show that on at least one day during the last three months of 2017 — the most recent period for which data were available — a quarter of facilities reported no registered nurses at work.

Medicare discouraged comparison of staffing under the two methods and said no one should expect them to “exactly match.” The agency said the methods measure different time periods and have different criteria for how to record hours that nurses worked. The nursing home industry also objected, with Gifford saying it was like comparing Fahrenheit and Celsius temperatures.

But several prominent researchers said the contrast was not only fair but also warranted, since Medicare is using the new data for the same purpose as the old: to rate nursing homes on its website. “It’s a worthwhile comparison,” said David Grabowski, a professor of health-care policy at Harvard Medical School.

Payroll records at Beechtree show that on its best-staffed days, it had one aide for every eight residents, but the ratio was 1-to-18 at the lowest staffing level. 

Of the more than 14,000 nursing homes submitting payroll records, 7 in 10 had lower staffing using the new method, with a 12 percent average decrease, the data show. And as numerous studies have found, homes with lower staffing tended to have more health code violations — another crucial measure of quality.

Even with more reliable data, Medicare’s five-star rating system still has shortcomings. Medicare still assigns stars by comparing a home to other facilities, essentially grading on a curve. As a result, many homes have kept their rating even though their payroll records showed lower staffing than before. Also, Medicare did not rate more than 1,000 facilities, either because of data anomalies or because they were too new to have a staffing history.

There is no consensus on optimal staffing levels. Medicare has rebuffed requests to set specific minimums, declaring in 2016 that it preferred that facilities “make thoughtful, informed staffing plans” based on the needs of residents.

Still, since 2014, health inspectors have cited 1 in 8 nursing homes for having too few nurses, federal records show.

With nurse assistants earning an average of $13.23 an hour in 2017, nursing homes compete for workers not only with better-paying employers like hospitals, but also with retailers. Understaffing leads predictably to higher turnover.

“They get burned out and they quit,” said Adam Chandler, whose mother lived at Beechtree until her death earlier this year. “It’s been constant turmoil, and it never ends.”

Medicare’s payroll records for the nursing homes showed that there were, on average, 11 percent fewer nurses providing direct care on weekends and 8 percent fewer aides. Staffing levels fluctuated substantially during the week as well, when an aide at a typical home might have to care for as few as nine residents or as many as 14.

A Family Council Forms

Beechtree actually gets its best Medicare rating in the category of staffing, with four stars. (Its inspection citations and the frequency of declines in residents’ health dragged its overall star rating down to two of five.)

To Stan Hugo, a retired math teacher whose wife, Donna, 80, lives at Beechtree, staffing levels have long seemed inadequate. In 2017, he and a handful of other residents and family members became so dissatisfied that they formed a council to scrutinize the home’s operation. Medicare requires nursing home administrators to listen to such councils’ grievances and recommendations.

Sandy Ferreira, who makes health-care decisions for Effie Hamilton, a blind resident, said Hamilton broke her arm falling out of bed and has been hospitalized for dehydration and septic shock.

“Almost every problem we’ve had on the floor is one that could have been alleviated with enough and well-trained staff,” Ferreira said.

Beechtree declined to discuss individual residents but said it had investigated these complaints and did not find inadequate staffing on those days. Camerota also said that Medicare does not count assistants it hires to handle the simplest duties like making beds.

In recent months, Camerota said, Beechtree “has made major strides in listening to and addressing concerns related to staffing at the facility.”

Hugo agreed that Beechtree has increased daytime staffing during the week under the prodding of his council. On nights and weekends, he said, it still remained too low.

His wife has Alzheimer’s, uses a wheelchair and no longer talks. She enjoys music, and Hugo placed earphones on her head so she could listen to her favorite singers as he spoon-fed her lunch in the dining room on a recent Sunday.

As he does each day he visits, he counted each nursing assistant he saw tending residents, took a photograph of the official staffing log in the lobby and compared it to what he had observed. While he fed his wife, he noted two aides for the 40 residents on the floor — half what Medicare says is average at Beechtree.

“Weekends are terrible,” he said. While he’s regularly there overseeing his wife’s care, he wondered: “What about all these other residents? They don’t have people who come in.”

 

 

Nursing homes using guardianship to get patients' assets

  Some nursing homes are filing papers to become guardians of   some patients  in order to get control over patients' assets to pay  debts to the nursing homes. With the aging of the population, will many healthcare organizations, including hospitals, soon be doing this?

The New York Times reports that this practice, at least in New York,  has ''become routine, underscoring the growing power nursing homes wield over residents and families amid changes in the financing of long-term care.''

''At least one judge has ruled that the tactic by nursing homes is an abuse of the law, but the petitions, even if they are ultimately unsuccessful, force families into costly legal ordeals.'

''Although it is a drastic measure, nursing home lawyers argue that using guardianship to secure payment for care is better than suing an incapacitated resident who cannot respond.''