The names of hundreds of nursing homes across the country found to have serious ongoing health, safety or sanitary issues were kept under wraps by the federal government, according to a new report.
Nearly 400 facilities nationwide had a “persistent record of poor care” as of April, but they were not included along with a shorter list of homes that get increased federal scrutiny and have warning labels, according to a Senate report released Monday.
Budget cuts appear to be contributing to the problem by reducing money available for the focused inspections that are required for nursing homes on the shorter list, according to documents and interviews.
The secrecy undermines the federal commitment to ensure transparency for families struggling to find nursing homes for loved ones and raises questions about why the names of some homes are not disclosed while others are publicly identified, according to two senators who released the report.
“We’ve got to make sure any family member or any potential resident of a nursing home can get this information, not only ahead of time but on an ongoing basis,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who along with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., issued the report.
“When a family makes the hard decision to seek nursing home services for a loved one, they deserve to know if a facility under consideration suffers from systemic shortcomings,” Toomey said.
The senators released a list provided them by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, of nursing homes with documented problems whose names were not publicly disclosed by the government.
Some of the concerns raised included a foul-smelling black substance seeping into the kitchen floor at one center due to a faulty septic tank, while inspectors at another facility found staff were not cleaning and disinfecting blood sugar measuring devices between tests of different patients, putting the residents at risk of infection.
About 1.3 million Americans are nursing home residents, cared for in more than 15,700 facilities. The senators’ report noted that problem nursing homes on both lists account for about 3 percent.
CMS does publicly disclose names of a smaller group of about 80 nursing homes that are getting special scrutiny to help them resolve documented quality problems. They’re in what’s called the Special Focus Facility program. Nursing homes that don’t improve can be cut off by Medicare and Medicaid.
In a letter last month to Casey, CMS Administrator Seema Verma singled out federal budget problems as a factor.
“The total number of (special focus) slots and total number of (special focus) candidates nationally are based on the availability of federal resources,” Verma wrote. She added that as recently as 2010, there was room for 167 nursing homes in the special focus program and 835 candidates. That’s now down to as many as 88 special focus slots and up to 440 candidates.
She said federal budget cuts in 2014 reduced the number of available slots.
Verma said her agency is evaluating whether it can publicly release the list of “candidate” nursing homes. The Trump administration has asked Congress for more money for health care inspections, but the final amount and how it will be distributed remain unclear.
In a statement, CMS said its starred ratings on the Nursing Home Compare website are already the best yardstick “for consumers to understand and use.” About 2,900 nursing homes have the lowest one-star overall rating.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.