Royal Oak Tribune

‘The dirty little secret was there’

Decades of neglect in nursing homes spur Biden plan for staff mandates

- By Christophe­r Rowland

Lisa Cabrera saw the warning signs of poor care at her father’s California nursing home - the bug bites on his back, the facial injuries from a fall, the times he was soaked in urine instead of being ready for trips to church. Still, she believed repeated assurances that the staff had inspected the pressure sore on his heel and changed the bandages.

But her dad, Louie Sira, 67, a disabled former janitor, kept gesturing to his right leg, indicating he felt pain. Finally, Cabrera peeled the dressing back herself, which had grown worse since the last time she looked.

“It stunk so bad, and it was bigger,” Cabrera said. The gangre

nous wound had dug down to bone and tendon in his heel, according to court records. Doctors were forced to amputate his right leg above the knee. He died three months later, in August 2019.

A county jury awarded $13.5 million in civil damages to Sira’s family and other plaintiffs after lawyers argued Parkview Healthcare Center in Hayward, Calif., and its affiliated management company, Mariner Health Central, skimped on nursing staff to boost profits. State and county authoritie­s are seeking civil penalties, alleging among other things that Mariner saved more than $4 million by short-staffing the Parkview facility in the last three years Sira lived there.

Parkview and Mariner, which are appealing the verdict, say the plaintiffs did not present sufficient evidence of neglect or, in the case of Sira, wrongful death. It has denied all allegation­s including that its facilities were understaff­ed and that it kept its nursing force low for financial gain.

Critics say the details of Sira’s suffering add to decades of accumulate­d evidence that residents suffer more complicati­ons, such as bed sores and falls, in nursing homes with inadequate numbers of front-line nurses and nursing assistants. Now, after years of debate and industry resistance, the Biden administra­tion has set in motion plans for a federal minimum staffing requiremen­t for the nation’s 15,500 nursing homes. The new rule is expected to be announced in 2023.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in an interview that the extraordin­ary toll of coronaviru­s deaths in nursing homes served as a catalyst for the Biden administra­tion to take action. Nearly 160,000 nursing home residents have died of covid-19 in the coronaviru­s pandemic, a catastroph­ic impact on frail elderly people who were especially vulnerable to infection and living

in closely packed quarters. About 2,700 staff members also have died in the pandemic.

“The dirty little secret was there,” Becerra said. “With covid, you couldn’t hide it.”

Many experts and advocates have been demanding minimum staffing in U.S. nursing homes for decades. “If we can finally get this accomplish­ed, it’s not going to solve all the problems, but it’s going to make a big difference,” said Charlene Harrington, a professor emeritus at the University of California at San Francisco and a researcher on the impact of staff size and training on nursing home quality.

A pivotal 2001 report produced for the agency that regulates the industry, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) found that nursing homes should deliver at least 4.1 hours of nursing care to each resident every day to avoid harm such as bed sores and falls - about the equivalent of one nurse for every seven residents on day and evening shifts.

Most U.S. nursing homes fall short of that minimum.

In 2019, the year before the pandemic, only about a third, or 5,200, nursing homes “frequently” reached the 4.1 hours threshold for each resident, according to an estimate by the U.S. Government Accountabi­lity Office. It defined “frequently” as at least 80 percent of the days in a year.

On the bottom end of the spectrum, the GAO estimate said, roughly a fifth, or 3,000, nursing homes met the minimum standard on fewer than 20 percent of the days in a year.

Amid industry opposition to mandates, however, the 2001 CMS study guidelines have never become a requiremen­t. In the two decades since, lawsuits, state inspection­s, academic studies and government reports have continued to show the negative impact of low nursing staff levels on quality.

It is not yet clear what ratio the administra­tion will impose, and whether it will adhere to the 2001 guidelines or pick another range. It is conducting a new analysis of nursing home operations to help it decide. Wherever it lands, Biden’s plan will run up against the lobbying clout of the nation’s nursing homes, which have won previous debates over a national staffing minimum, including in 2016, when President Barack Obama’s administra­tion rejected the idea.

The industry contends minimum staff mandates of 4.1 hours per resident per day would cost up to $10 billion per year and are unworkable because of a shortage of workers willing to do the job. It says government has never provided enough funding, especially through Medicaid programs, to support that level of staffing, which it says could require 187,000 new workers.

“It’s one thing to announce we are going to get all these workers in all these buildings, but are we as a society willing to pay for it? So far the answer has been no,” said Mark Parkinson, president and chief executive of the American Health Care Associatio­n, which represents the nursing home industry.

“If you have more staff, it’s better than having less staff,” he added. But imposing a broad mandate does not make sense, he said. The associatio­n cites federal data showing total nursing home employment dropped to 1.34 million workers from 1.58 million during the pandemic.

“The administra­tion can propose it and may require it to be done,” Parkinson said, “but the workers are not there and it will not happen.”

The associatio­n has said most nursing homes in the country are grappling with the fallout of staff shortages made worse by the pandemic. LeadingAge, an associatio­n that represents nonprofit nursing homes, also opposes the mandate. It said in written comments to the administra­tion that the rule “unjustly punishes nursing homes that are unable to meet standards due to factors beyond their control.”

Critics counter that the nursing home industry has abundant profit available to boost staffing and make the jobs more attractive. But the industry’s business model, with multiple related corporate entities often receiving payments from a single nursing home, makes it difficult to follow the money.

Shortchang­ing the direct-care workforce - primarily made up of women and people of color - with low pay, poor training and insufficie­nt numbers is a tempting way for nursing homes to boost the bottom line, said Kelly Bagby, vice president at AARP Foundation Litigation and a former senior counsel in the Health and Human Services inspector general’s office.

“It’s the simplest way to maximize your profit,” she said.

A review of enforcemen­t actions and lawsuits filed against nursing homes illuminate­s the ways a poor ratio of residents to staff can lead to alleged poor care and neglect.

In Washington state, for instance, a state inspector documented staffing levels at the Arcadia Healthcare - University Place on Jan. 27, 2020. For 110 residents, there were four direct-care nurses on duty during the day shift, a ratio of one nurse assistant to 27 residents, according to the report. That day, multiple residents received their insulin hours late. The inspection report cited other examples of allegedly deficient care, including untreated pain and poor wound care.

A registered nurse at the facility told the inspector “staffing is scary unsafe here.” Representa­tives of the facility did not respond to requests for comment. A New York venture capital and private-equity firm listed in federal records as an indirect owner of the facility, Goldner Capital Management, also did not respond. In the facility’s corrective action plan included in the inspection report, the facility said it would provide 30 days of 24-hour manager coverage to ensure staffing levels were safe. The report said the facility also “consolidat­ed resident rooms to provide safer staffing abilities.”

In Detroit, an inspection report for the Westwood Nursing Center said that on the weekend of Aug. 27 and 28 this year, several residents reported they could not find nursing staff and did not receive daily medication­s. Some of them called 911. Investigat­ors confirmed in a review of records that multiple residents did not get their pills, including medication­s for pain, hypertensi­on, blood clotting and heart problems. The inspection report said the nurses scheduled to work that weekend “called off” and that some managers, unable to obtain nurses from an outside agency, attempted to provide care themselves but did not distribute medication­s.

Subsequent inspection­s revealed a number of alleged violations at Westwood. In one, the inspection report found, a resident was restrained on multiple days in a recliner by an attachable table top. The resident was observed “pulling on the secured table and yelling out.” A staffer told the inspector the table was in place to keep the resident from falling. The resident was supposed to be released from the restraint arrangemen­t every two hours, according to a physician’s order, but there was no evidence that order had been followed, the report said. The report also documented bedrooms allegedly strewn with garbage and swarming with flies. Westwood did not respond to a request for comment. Previously, a letter to the facility from the state in May 2022 said Westwood did not have any noncomplia­nce issues at that time.

Certified nursing assistants provide the bulk of care in nursing homes. They earned a median wage of $14.41 an hour in 2021, according to the nonprofit policy group PHI, citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics data. They lift patients in and out of bed - a task that sometimes requires two people. They shower, bathe and groom. They are supervised by smaller numbers of higher-skilled nurses - registered nurses and licensed practical nurses - who dispense medication­s and monitor vital signs.

The federal staffing requiremen­t for each facility is one eight-hour shift per 24 hours for a registered nurse - who can make vital judgments for medical interventi­ons - and one licensed practical nurse on duty at all times.

For the total nursing staff needed - including the people who deliver most of the care, the certified nursing assistants - the government’s rule is vague: whatever an operator determines is “sufficient” to assure the safety and well-being of residents.

To fill the void left by the lack of specific federal requiremen­ts, 35 states and D.C. have adopted their own minimum staffing standards. With the exception of D.C., they fall below the standard the CMS study identified as appropriat­e in 2001. In a study by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, D.C. ranked No. 1 among states on Medicare’s quality rating system, with 53 percent of facilities listed at five stars.

In Chicago, Jacinda Gaston, who was a trainee resident assistant, described her struggles this year trying to care for residents on what she said was an understaff­ed floor of the Alden Lakeland Rehabilita­tion and Healthcare Center. On many of her shifts, just two caregivers were available to take care of 72 residents, she said in an interview. Other times, there would be three caregivers and rarely there would be four, she said.

When she arrived at 3 p.m. for the start of the evening shift, she said, she would often find residents who had been lying in bed, soaked in urine and feces for hours.

“It was disturbing. I couldn’t take care of everybody,” she said. “Knowing that these people have been sleeping in their own waste all day, we had to figure out who was the worst” and prioritize them for cleaning and fresh undergarme­nts.

Gaston worked at Alden Lakeland from March to August of this year, she said. She now works at a different nursing home that she says is better staffed. A state inspection report of Alden Lakeland in June cited Alden as deficient for failing to provide sufficient staff.

Alden Lakeland’s Chicago parent company, Alden Group, which operates more than 50 nursing homes, is the subject of a class-action lawsuit alleging chronic short-staffing and neglect.

Alden declined to comment on specific allegation­s, citing pending litigation. “Alden vigorously denies any and all allegation­s of wrongdoing set forth by the plaintiffs and their attorneys and is confident the judicial process will vindicate Alden in this action,” the company said. “Alden is committed to providing quality care, and the wellbeing of our residents has been and always will be our top priority.”

In Beaver, Pa., a federal investigat­ion into alleged staffing violations led to criminal indictment­s on charges of conspiracy and fraud against executives and administra­tors of the 589bed Brighton Rehabilita­tion and Wellness Center. The facility was the scene of one of the worst coronaviru­s outbreaks in the country in the spring of 2020, requiring the interventi­on of Pennsylvan­ia National Guard troops. As of early October, 94 residents had died at Brighton from coronaviru­s infections, according to federal data. A spokesman for the operators, Comprehens­ive Healthcare Management Services, did not respond to a request for comment. Comprehens­ive pleaded not guilty in the case, which is pending in U.S. District Court.

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