WASHINGTON – Advocates and state officials agree that vigilance by family members is essential to making sure that a nursing home provides good care to its residents.
That vigilance includes visiting nursing homes, talking to staff members and checking out nursing home inspection records.
But critics say that while the inspection records are public, that does not mean they are accurate or easy to get and understand.
On its Web site, the Office of Health Care Quality says: “Nursing home inspection results are considered public information. To obtain this information, you may make an appointment to look at our files or call to request the information by mail.”
But several requests by Capital News Service for such an appointment were rebuffed. Officials would not allow a reporter to look through the files, but would only provide copies of specific records on request.
Members of the public requesting copies of such records are charged 50 cents per page.
Dennis Steele, who has written extensively on nursing home inspections, noted that 13 states do not charge the public for inspection records. Steele hosts memberofthefamily.net, a Web site that was providing electronic access to nursing home deficiency records from around the country even before the federal government’s Medicare.gov did so.
Even when the records are available, they have to be read carefully, said Steele, who co-authored “Danger Zone,” with Dr. Edward C. Watters, a book that advises families on how to read nursing home medical records.
He said that Maryland supervision of nursing homes has consistently been among the worst in the country.
“Maryland is incredible.” Steele said. “I always say it’s the two-peas-in-the-pod syndrome.
“You got the state regulators, who are supposedly regulating nursing home care, and they are also reporting on how they are doing,” Steele said. “What bureaucrat do you ever know that said: ‘I’m not doing a very good job’?”
David Baxter, whose 87-year-old grandmother died in a nursing home after her feeding tube was left running unattended for hours, said the Office of Health Care Quality’s policy of requiring people to submit complaints in writing limits the number of complaints it gets.
“Some of them are blind or can’t see very well,” Baxter said of residents who may not be physically able to file a complaint.
He also worries that abusive staff may lash out at residents who complain.
“There a lot of people in nursing homes that don’t get a lot of visitors. They are at their (staffers’) mercy,” Baxter said. “If they complain, they know you don’t get no relatives. And that’s where that retaliation factor comes back into play.”
Baxter urged the General Assembly last year to pass a bill that would require a nursing home to notify the next of kin if a resident is harmed. The bill was defeated, but the Office of Health Care Quality soon after changed its own rules to require such notification.
State officials concede that there are shortcomings in the process, but argue that family members must remain vigilant if the situation is to improve.
“No matter what we do, there is nothing like the families, themselves, visiting these nursing homes regularly,” said Jean W. Roesser, secretary of the Maryland Department of Aging. “I think that is very, very important, if not critical to quality of care.”
-30- CNS 04-27-04