With considerable fanfare, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released a new rating system for nursing homes in mid-December. Depending on your perspective, the state where I live, Massachusetts, either did very well—it was among the top 10 states in the US—or not so well—it has a lower percentage of five-star and a higher percentage of one-star nursing homes than neighboring New Hampshire, Connecticut or Maine.
All rating systems are subject to criticism and this latest one is no exception. For some time, CMS has published Nursing Home Compare, which allows consumers to see how a particular nursing home scores using a variety of indicators. The new approach tries to boil down all the assessments to a single summary statistic. That statistic (the number of stars) in turn depends on just three measures: the result of health inspections, the staffing ratio, and a quality measure. Arguably the most important—and controversial—of these is the quality measure. For long stay nursing homes, the rating system uses 7 different measures to come up with its rating, ranging from the percent of residents who report untreated pain (a good measure but dependent on self-reporting by the facility) to the frequency of urinary tract infections (of dubious importance as many nursing home residents have bacteria in their urine that is of no significance). For short stay facilities (rehab or post-acute care), the rating system uses only 3 different measures to derive its composite quality rating: the presence of acute confusion (delirium), pain, and pressure ulcers. None of the three is corrected for the severity of illness of the patients in the facility. It’s not clear to me that this simplified rating system is an improvement over the previous more nuanced reports. But what is indisputable is that nursing homes in Massachusetts vary enormously. Facilities awarded five stars are probably pretty good and those with one star are probably pretty poor. What, then, should the state do to promote better quality?
The prevailing approach to ensuring quality relies on an extensive system of federal regulations that are enforced by the state Department of Public Health. Teams of surveyors make unscheduled inspections to determine whether facilities are in compliance with the regulations and issue citations for any “deficiencies.” The results of these surveys are public and may result in penalties ranging from fines to loss of Medicaid and Medicare certification. Nursing home quality has improved over the past 10 years, and the regulations probably played a role in stimulating change, particularly when combined with a mandatory resident assessment system, but clearly there is more work to be done.
How should Massachusetts promote further improvement? Perhaps it is time to move from a punitive system to one that offers incentives for achieving quality. An interesting experiment that bears watching is underway in Minnesota, which has introduced pay-for-performance into nursing homes. But pay-for-performance tends to encourage institutions to concentrate only on those areas in which they know they will be measured, to the detriment of other areas. And by rewarding facilities for outcomes rather than for improvement, they decrease reimbursement to precisely those sites that need an infusion of funds to improve.
Over the long run, Massachusetts can hope to improve nursing homes by making a career in long-term care attractive. Physician interest in nursing home care has grown, though modestly: medical directors of nursing homes now have their own professional society and an academic journal. Nurse practitioners are playing an increasing role as primary care clinicians in the nursing home, where they have contributed to better medical care and decreased hospitalization rates along with a high degree of family satisfaction. The last frontier is the nursing assistant, who continues to be poorly paid, to have limited opportunities for advancement, and to suffer from high rates of job-related injury.
The Massachusetts Act to Promote Cost Containment, signed into law in August, 2008, commits the state to a major effort to attract primary care physicians and nurses through enhanced educational opportunities and loan forgiveness programs. We need to broaden that initiative by developing a career ladder for nursing assistants, creating a variety of positions between the Certified Nursing Assistant (who typically receives 75 hours of classroom training and 100 hours of on-the-job training) and the Registered Nurse (who may have spent 4-5 years getting a Bachelor of Science in Nursing). Only when all those caring for nursing home residents take pride in their work, when they receive respect for what they do and have autonomy in their jobs, can we expect both quality of care and quality of life to improve in nursing facilities.