Understaffed nursing homes are a huge problem, and Biden's promised fix 'sabotaged'
Updated September 1, 2023 at 12:54 PM ET
Update: The Biden administration released its recommendation on nursing home staffing ratios after this story published on Sept. 1. The proposed rule would require each resident get 33 minutes of care a day from a registered nurse. It also would mandate that at least one RN be working at a facility 24 hours a day. For nurse's aides, the care hours recommended are 2.45 hours per resident per day, a total below what was studied in the research referenced in this story. The comment period for the proposed rule goes until Nov. 6.
The Biden administration last year promised to establish minimum staffing levels for the nation's roughly 15,000 nursing homes. It was the centerpiece of an agenda to overhaul an industry the government said was rife with substandard care and failures to follow federal quality rules.
But a research study the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services commissioned to identify the appropriate level of staffing made no specific recommendations and analyzed only staffing levels lower than what the previous major federal evaluation had considered best, according to a copy of the study reviewed this week by KFF Health News. Instead, the new study said there was no single staffing level that would guarantee quality care, although the report estimated that higher staffing levels would lead to fewer hospitalizations and emergency room visits, faster care, and fewer failures to provide care.
Patient advocates said the report was the latest sign that the administration would fall short of its pledge to establish robust staffing levels to protect the 1.2 million Americans in skilled nursing facilities.
Residents at risk
Already, the administration is six months behind its self-imposed deadline of February to propose new rules. Those proposals, which have not been released, were under evaluation from May until this week by the Office of Management and Budget. The study, dated June 2023, has not been formally released either, but a copy was posted on the CMS website. It was taken down shortly after KFF Health News published this article.
"It's honestly heartbreaking," said Richard Mollot, executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for nursing home patients in New York state. "I just don't see how this doesn't ultimately put more residents at risk of neglect and abuse. Putting the government's imprimatur on a standard that is patently unsafe is going to make it much more difficult for surveyors to hold facilities accountable for the harm caused by understaffing nursing homes."
For months, the nursing home industry has been lobbying strenuously against a uniform ratio of patients to nurses and aides. "What is clear as you look across the country is every nursing home is unique and a one-size-fits-all approach does not work," said Holly Harmon, senior vice president of quality, regulatory, and clinical services at the American Health Care Association, an industry trade group.
Grueling work, low pay
Nursing home groups have emphasized the widespread difficulty in finding workers willing to fill existing certified nursing assistant jobs, which are often grueling and pay less than what workers can make at retail stores. Homes say their licensed nurses are often drawn away by other jobs, such as better-paying hospital positions. "The workforce challenges are real," said Katie Smith Sloan, president and CEO of LeadingAge, an association that represents nonprofit nursing homes.
The industry has also argued that if the government wants it to hire more workers it needs to increase the payments it makes through state Medicaid programs, which are the largest payor for nursing home care. Advocates and some researchers have argued that nursing homes, particularly for-profit ones, can afford to pay employees more and hire additional staff if they forsake some of the profits they give investors.
"Certainly, facilities haven't put all the dollars back into direct care over the years," said David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. "But for certain facilities, it's going to be a big lift to pay for" higher staffing levels, he said in an interview last week.
Widely anticipated study
In a written statement to KFF Health News, Jonathan Blum, CMS' principal deputy administrator and chief operating officer, said the study had been posted in error.
"CMS is committed to holding nursing homes accountable for protecting the health and safety of all residents, and adequate staffing is critical to this effort," he said. "CMS's proposal is being developed using a rigorous process that draws on a wide range of source information, including extensive input from residents and their families, workers, administrators, experts, and other stakeholders. Our focus is on advancing implementable solutions that promote safe, quality care for residents."
Blum's statement called the study a "draft," although nothing in the 478-page study indicated it was preliminary.
The study has been widely anticipated, both because of the central role the administration said it would play in its policy and because the last major CMS study, conducted in 2001, had concluded that nursing home care improves as staffing increases up to the level of about one worker for every six residents. The formal metric for that staffing level was 4.1 staff hours per resident per day, which is calculated by dividing the number of total hours worked by nurses and aides on duty daily by the number of residents present each day.
CMS never adopted that staffing ratio and instead gave each nursing home discretion to determine a reasonable staffing level. Regulators rarely cite nursing homes for insufficient staffing, even though independent researchers have concluded low staffing is the root of many nursing home injuries. Too few nurse aides, for instance, often means immobile residents are not repositioned in bed, causing bedsores that can lead to infection. Low staffing also is often responsible for indignities residents face, such as being left in soiled bedsheets for hours.
The new research was conducted by Abt Associates, a regular contractor for CMS that also performed the 2001 study. But the report, in an implicit disagreement with its predecessor, concluded there was "no obvious plateau at which quality and safety are maximized or 'cliff' below which quality and safety steeply decline." Abt referred questions about the study to CMS.
The study evaluated four minimum staffing levels, all of which were below the 4.1 daily staff hours that the prior study had identified as ideal. The highest was 3.88 daily staff hours. At that level, the study estimated 0.6% of residents would get delayed care and 0.002% would not get needed care. It also said that staffing level would result in 12,100 fewer hospitalizations of Medicare residents and 14,800 fewer emergency room visits. The report said three-quarters of nursing homes would need to add staff to meet that level and that it would cost $5.3 billion extra each year.
The lowest staffing level the report analyzed was 3.3 daily staffing hours. At that level, the report said, 3.3% of residents would get delayed care and 0.04% would not get needed care. That level would reduce hospitalizations of Medicare residents by 5,800 and lead to 4,500 fewer emergency room visits. More than half of nursing homes would have to increase staff levels to meet that ratio, the report said, and it would cost $1.5 billion more each year.
Charlene Harrington, a professor emeritus of nursing at the University of California-San Francisco, said CMS "sabotaged" the push for sufficiently high staffing through the instructions it gave its contractor. "Every threshold they looked at was below 4.1," she said. "How can that possibly be a decent study? It's just unacceptable."
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