Nursing home industry worries about new ratings

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Rating systems help people decide which restaurants to go to or hotels to stay at. So why not something similar from the federal government for the nation's 16,000 nursing homes?

Such a simple rating for so complex a task as caring for the elderly is leading to much anxiety in the nursing home industry. Home operators worry about the ramifications for their business if they get one or two stars - when five is the best.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services was to let everyone know Thursday just how many stars each home is getting. Already the industry is questioning the validity of the rankings. To operators, the five-star system is a great idea whose time has not yet come.

The system "is poorly planned, prematurely implemented and hamhandedly rolled out," said Larry Minnix, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, an industry trade group.

Federal officials say the rankings will put nursing homes "on the path to improvement" because they know family members will think twice before putting someone in a one-star home.

The ratings are based on state inspections, staffing levels and quality measures, such as the percentage of residents with pressure sores. The nursing homes will receive stars for each of those categories as well as for their overall quality.

Consumer groups like the concept, but they agreed there are some potential problems with the data. For example, the staffing data is self-reported just before state surveys and is widely recognized as unreliable.

"From a consumer viewpoint, it's not stringent enough," said Alice H. Hedt, executive director of the National Citizens' Coalition for Nursing Home Reform. "It's basically taking information already available on Medicare's Nursing Home Compare Web site and pulling it into an easier system for consumers to use, and that is a good thing."

Hedt said consumers should consider the star ratings, but not solely rely on them when comparing facilities. Her organization also issued a press release warning that nursing homes may appear in the ratings to give better care than they actually do.

"Our initial reaction is that consumers should probably avoid any facility with a one- or two-star rating and even a three-star rating unless people they trust convince them that the rating is inaccurate or unfair," she said.

But, in Indiana, eight nonprofit nursing homes have reported they got one star for staffing even though they have some of the highest staffing levels in the states, said Jim Leich, president and chief executive officer of the Indiana Association of Homes for the Aging. He believes the one-star rating is the result of a records glitch particular to any nursing home that is part of a campus that includes housing for residents with less intensive care needs.

"It's really going to be an injustice for some of our best facilities," he said.

The Jennings Center for Older Adults in Garfield Heights, Ohio, got four stars for its nursing home, said Martha Kutik, the center's president and CEO. Still, she's worried that the rating system relies on surveys that measure cracks in the ceiling but don't measure patient and family satisfaction.

"Any system that's going to measure quality for consumers should keep satisfaction high on the list," Kutik said.

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On the Net:

Medicare's Nursing Home Compare Web site: http://Medicare.gov/NHcompare

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