WASHINGTON – A year after the federal government launched a program to increase awareness of nursing home inspection reports, state officials and local advocates say Maryland consumers are still not using the publicly available resources.
“We need to publicize these (records) more. I think they are under- utilized, certainly,” said Barbara McLean, executive director of the Maryland Health Care Commission.
The records McLean was referring to are inspection reports done by the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for all 246 nursing homes in Maryland. The reports, done twice a year, measure everything from the number of patients with bedsores to a home’s compliance with nutritional guidelines.
The reports also give information on nursing home ownership, number of beds, location and other logistical information.
Maryland was one of six states that participated in a six-month pilot program last year that was designed, among other things, to increase public awareness of online inspection reports and other comparative quality measures. The project put the DHMH-generated reports online, on both federal and state- maintained sites.
The Nursing Home Quality Initiative, developed by the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS), began last April and was deemed such a success that federal officials decided to go nationwide with the program last fall.
“The increase in inquiries to Medicare’s help-line and web site suggest that consumers . . . were potentially reached,” said a recent CMS summary report on the pilot program.
CMS spokesman Peter Ashkenaz said the initiative will continue to increase awareness across the country.
But those involved in Maryland’s senior community said that while the pilot program may have boosted awareness of nursing home reports, the number of people who use the reports is still far from where it should be.
“A lot of older people just go wherever they hear is good. A lot of it has to do with convenience,” said Mary Moffett, nursing director at Villa Rosa nursing home in Mitchellville.
She said some people “go for the appearances,” satisfied that a nursing home is good if they are met by a clean lobby and fancy decor.
Trudy Lieberman, director of the Center for Consumer Health Choices at Consumer’s Union, said a recent Consumer Reports survey revealed that only 6 percent of consumers nationwide consulted state records when choosing a long- term care facility. One-third did not do any comparison shopping at all, she said.
“They listen to the discharge planner at the hospital or a doctor. They certainly did not go to these kinds of (official) sources,” Lieberman said.
Both McLean and Lieberman said the online information is a valuable tool for consumers who are considering nursing home care.
Seniors can use the information on inspections and residents’ health conditions to compare the quality of care provided at local nursing homes, and relatives of current residents can use the data to check up on living conditions at their loved one’s facility.
Other operators said they welcome wider use of the data, but warned that it can be misleading if used alone.
“They perpetuate people’s worst fears,” said Isabella Firth, president of Mid-Atlantic LifeSpan, a trade association of adult-care facilities.
She said the ratings are only one measure of a center’s quality, and that using them as the sole quality indicator is “pejorative.” Firth said varying levels of compliance on some self-reported categories can make one center look worse than another, when they are actually providing the same level of care.
Despite her concerns, Firth said her association supports any efforts to inform the public, and that more could be done.
“The federal government has failed miserably in making people aware” of the information, said Firth, who regularly polls her members to find out how clients are referred.
“Our members are not getting any questions from anybody about it (the data), which leads me to believe that no one is using it,” she said.
Both Firth and McLean recommended that consumers use the data in conjunction with other factors such as personal visits to the facilities.
Moffett agreed. Consumers “need to check deeper, they need to do more research,” she said.
Ashkenaz said CMS will strive to make the public aware.
“We have to continue to do everything that we can to promote the information that is available,” he said.