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Medicare Star Ratings May Do More Harm Than Good

Choosing a nursing home for yourself or a loved one can be among the most decisions difficult of your life. In a culture increasingly dependent on the internet, Medicare’s nursing home ranking website is exceedingly popular. There are more than 15,000 nursing homes in the United States; trying to find the right one is overwhelming, which is why systems that rank facilities are so widely used.

Nursing home lawyers at Pintas & Mullins and throughout the country are concerned that these online ranking systems are actually causing much more harm than good. Here, we delve into this matter and the reality of Medicare’s five-star system.

The New York Times recently published an in-depth, wonderfully written yet harrowing account of how Medicare’s ratings allow nursing homes to cheat the system – and ultimately elderly patients. Although the five-start Medicare program is relatively new (it was established in 2009), it has become exceedingly popular. Consider this scenario: your elderly mother lives with you, and one day she falls and breaks her leg, requiring emergency surgery and rehabilitation. After surgery, the hospital gives you just one day to choose a rehab center for recovery. Pressed for time and overwhelmed by the situation, you turn to Medicare.gov for help.

This is exactly what happened to the Chandler family, of Sacramento, California, in 2011. Wanting to keep her close to home, the Chandlers placed their 90-year-old mother in Rosewood Post-Acute Rehab, which had a five-star rating on Medicare.gov. Like so many others, they did not know how the rating system actually worked, and the hotel-like appearance of Rosewood comforted them. They placed Essie May Chandler in Rosewood for a six month stay.

In her six months at Rosewood, Essie lost 40 pounds, fell 11 times, had massive bruising across her body, and broke both her legs. Another six months after she returned home to her family, she passed away. The Chandlers now live with this guilt, clearly unable to forgive themselves.

What Went Wrong

Medicare’s ranking system is based on three factors: inspection reports, staffing levels, and quality measures. These last two criteria rely only on data the nursing home self-reports to the government; and the feds never go in to check if the numbers are accurate. Therefore there is not much deterring nursing homes from over-reporting and sending false data to Medicare to boost their ratings.

To say the basis of this system is incomplete or lacking would be an understatement. It seriously misleads consumers because of its flaws and because it does not account for important factors, like complaints filed, or fines and enforcement actions. If that information was factored in, it is unlikely Rosewood would have five stars; from 2009 to 2013, officials received about 150 complaints and reports of problems at Rosewood, which is twice the state average.

To investigate further, Times reporters interviewed current and former residents at Rosewood, most of who said they did not think the facility deserved a five-star rating. Many residents live in a room with two other people, the facility is understaffed, and basic supplies are scarce. Rosewood has also recently been named in about a dozen lawsuits (including several resident deaths) from families who accuse staff of mistreatment and substandard care.

When injured residents or their families sue nursing homes for negligence or abuse, they quite often have to go up against the nursing home’s parent companies. Rosewood, for instance, is actually operated by North American Health Care, which also owns more than 30 other nursing facilities. This offers a glimpse into why Rosewood appears so well-run on the outside, but fails its residents so egregiously.

North American Health Care is a for-profit corporation, focused on pleasing investors and increasing the bottom line. The nursing home industry is made up primarily of corporations like North American Health Care, who own dozens, if not hundreds of nursing homes. Understaffing, failing to keep up with supplies, and overcrowding rooms actually help boost profits, though cause grave harm to residents.

Many nursing homes have expertly learned how to play the rating game – one analysis shows that even facilities with illustrious histories of inadequate care have high ratings in the self-reported criteria. Case in point: of 50 nursing homes on federal watch for poor quality, two-thirds have four or five stars for quality data and staff levels, while the state-reported health inspections earned them one or two stars.

Legal experts maintain that nearly all cases of nursing home neglect are caused in large part by understaffing. If nursing homes are actively lying to Medicare about their staff levels, it not only paints a false picture of the facility’s quality, but actively harms the health, safety and well-being of residents. To read the Times article in its entirety (and watch the accompanying video), click here.

Our team of nursing home negligence lawyers has been fighting on behalf of elderly residents for over 30 years. We have a national network so we can accept clients in all 50 states, free of charge. If you have any questions regarding nursing homes or the safety of an elderly loved one, contact our firm immediately for a free, confidential consultation.

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