The Center for Medicare Advocacy (CMA) recently issued a Special Report focusing on progressively ineffective enforcement actions against nursing-home facilities that have demonstrated a pattern of serious noncompliance with federal nursing-home care standards meant to ensure quality care and resident safety.

The report concludes that in addition to a noncompliant nursing home’s ability to mislead consumers about its quality of care by masking staffing levels and self-reporting quality-care measures to the federal government, penalties in the form of monetary fines—imposed on the most unsafe nursing homes—are declining, and thus, are likely ineffective in improving the care provided to residents.

In cooperation with state surveyors, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid (CMS) regularly visits nursing homes to determine whether they are ensuring resident safety by complying with federal nursing-home care standards: The standards also determine whether nursing homes may participate in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement programs. And while most nursing homes have some deficiencies, most of them correct those problems within a reasonable period of time. But for nursing homes with (1) a history of having twice the average number of deficiencies, (2) deficiencies resulting in serious quality and safety issues, and (3) those issues persisting over a long period of time, CMS identifies them as Special Focus Facilities (SFF) and subjects them to additional surveys and fines.

CMS attempts to notify the public about identified SFF’s by publishing a monthly report providing the status of SFF’s by grouping them into categories separated by the following Tables:

Table Category
A Newly Added
B Not Improved
C Improving
D Recently Graduated
E No Longer in Medicare and Medicaid

The report also contains the number months the nursing home has operated as SFF.

As of the most recent SFF Update, July 19, 2018, CMS identified or had identified the following New Jersey Nursing Homes as Special Focus Facilities:

Nursing Home Location Status Months as SFF
New Grove Manor East Orange Newly Added 4 months
Cooper River West Pennsauken Improving 12 months
Meadowview Nursing & Respiratory Care Williamstown Recently Graduated 15 months

CMS also attempts to notify the public about the quality of care provided by all Medicare- and Medicaid-certified nursing homes in the country through its Nursing Home Compare Five-Star Rating website. The star-rating system gives each nursing home a rating from 1 to 5 stars in three categories: (1) health inspections, (2) staffing, and (3) quality of resident care measures (collected on each patient). Based on those ratings, CMS also calculates an overall rating.

However, while all three categories help provide a snapshot of a nursing home’s quality, a New York Times article faulted the five-star rating system for being susceptible to manipulation, and thus capable of misleading the public. That is because CMS allowed nursing homes to self-report data for two of the three categories: staffing and quality of resident care measures.  Only the health inspections category provided an independent window into the quality of a nursing home, because CMS conducts the inspections onsite and reports the results of the inspections.

Healthcare professionals have traditionally viewed the level of staffing as indicative of the nursing home’s ability to provide quality care and ensure patient safety. But even after the 2015 revision to the 5-Star Rating System to, in part, improve the accuracy of reporting staffing levels, nursing homes have continued mask the erratic levels of individuals working from day to day.

So while an unsafe nursing home may report a high-quality star rating (4 or 5 stars) in staffing and quality care measures, the health inspections category provides a more accurate assessment of how well the nursing home protects residents from harm.

For example, as of July 30, 2018, the Nursing Home Compare website reports the following quality star ratings for New Grove Manor nursing home, listed above:

The CMS website shows that despite CMS (1) assigning a Much Below Average rating (1 star) for health inspections, (2) assigning a Below Average rating (2 stars) for overall quality, and (3) identifying New Grove Manor as a Special Focus Facility—CMS permits New Grove Manor to report an Above Average rating (4 stars) for staffing levels and to self-report an Above Average rating (4 stars) for quality measures..

Moreover, the CMA Special Report suggests that despite the poor performance of the 18 Newly Added nursing homes in the SFF Update, July 19, 2018, enforcement actions against those nursing homes are relatively minor. The Special Report notes that when attributing the total amount fines ($992,325) to all 18 Newly Added facilities, covering the prior 3-years, the average fine per year for each SFF is $18,375. However, as the Special Report notes, CMS imposed fines on only 12 of the 18 nursing homes over the prior three years. Thus, for those 12 nursing homes, the average fine per year was merely $27,562.

If you or a family member have experienced a significant physical injury as a result of poor care at a nursing home, please contact the Nursing Home Litigation Group at Stark & Stark.