More On DHHS/HCFA Report Of Nursing Home Staff Shortages


Last week Elder Law Issues reported on a government study of nursing home staffing and safety. This week we continue that report. The full DHHS/HCFA report is now online.]

As described last week, the Department of Health and Human Services report recommends minimum staffing levels for nursing aides, Registered Nurses and Licensed Practical Nurses in nursing homes. It also suggests optimum levels. Almost two-thirds of U.S. nursing homes fall below those optimum staffing levels, and about half are below even the minimum levels for RNs and LPNs.

Why are staffing levels so low? Part of the problem, according to the government report, is the government itself. In recent years the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs have moved aggressively to cut medical costs, with particular emphasis on long-term care costs. Particularly notable was the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, which reduced government spending largely through reductions in Medicare and Medicaid financing, and with particular emphasis on long-term care, hospital care and drug costs. One result: many nursing homes can not afford adequate staffing.

A related problem in recent years has been the growing number of individual nursing homes, regional and national nursing home chains facing financial difficulties. A number of national chains have filed bankruptcy proceedings in the past eighteen months. Vencor, Sun Healthcare, Integrated Health Services and Mariner Post-Acute Network, four of the largest chains in the country, all filed for bankruptcy protection during that time period. Combined, these troubled organizations operated well over a thousand nursing homes.

The DHHS study looked at staffing ratios in those financially troubled nursing homes as compared to other chains and individual homes. Not surprisingly, staffing in the bankrupt chains decreased in the last four years—but so did staffing levels in the non-bankrupt chain facilities. Staffing levels in non-chain nursing homes, meanwhile, increased slightly during the same time period.

What will Congress and the Administration do about the decline in nursing home staffing? Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Chairman of the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging, provided one preview. In a press release issued days after the report was received, the Senator intoned that “the suffering of nursing home residents is intolerable. Bedsores and malnutrition turn the stomach and hurt the conscience. They beg for a solution, the sooner, the better.”

Senator Grassley “plans to look into options to encourage states to increase Medicaid rates for nursing homes if they agree to hire more staff with the increased rates.” In addition, the Senator promises to consider giving the nursing home industry back some of the money cut from Medicare budgets by the Republicans’ “Balanced Budget Act of 1997″—provided that the nursing home industry uses the money to hire more staff.

Will this solve the nursing home staffing problem? Perhaps. Direct government regulation may work better. In those states with minimum staffing requirements, the report indicates that staffing approaches the levels deemed acceptable by its analysis. But if staffing levels are increased by government order, but no new money is added to the system, those nursing homes already experiencing financial difficulties can hardly be expected to thrive.

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