After years of criticism about conditions at the nation's nursing homes, the government on Tuesday released information on all 17,000 of them in the United States, aiming to help consumers make good choices.
"I would rate this as extremely important,'' said Donna Lenhoff, executive director of the National Citizens' Coalition for Nursing Home Reform. "It means that consumers will be able to find out more information and they will be alerted to some of the questions they need to ask about nursing homes.''
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson called the project "a new approach to bringing about better quality care in our nation's nursing homes.''
"Not only will consumers be better informed, but nursing homes themselves will be able to see more clearly what they must do to make the quality grade,'' Thompson said. "They will have to compete in the quality arena.''
The program is an expansion of a pilot program that began earlier this year in Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington state.
Consumers can access the information on the government's Web site — http://www.medicare.gov — or by calling 1-800-MEDICARE. The government also is placing ads about the new availability of the data in several major newspapers nationwide.
Families will have information on 10 quality indicators examining such things as the prevalence of physical restraints at a facility and the percentage of residents who have bed sores. Information on deficiencies found during annual inspections and complaint investigations also is being made available.
All of the information is based on data that nursing homes must routinely collect from residents as part of their participation in the federal Medicare program. In addition to providing consumers useful information, government officials are hoping that the new availability of information will prompt facilities to make improvements.
"In the long run, the real goal for consumers is to raise the level of quality, to raise the whole level of debate,'' said Tom Scully, the Medicare agency's administrator.
Homes that want to improve their performance can get help from quality improvement organizations based in each state and under contract with Medicare "They're basically a government paid consultant,'' Scully said.
For instance, in Colorado, about 50 of 225 facilities sought help from the quality improvement organizations, officials there said.
At Clear Creek Care Center in Westminster, Colo., a team of six nursing home employees attended a half-day workshop once a month with improvement experts. There, they were taught what they could do to better identify and care for residents in pain. The result was that Clear Creek residents who reported experiencing pain has dropped from 19 percent in April to 5 percent currently, officials said.
"We can really say now in our facility that all staff is aware of our philosophy about pain,'' nursing home administrator Beth Irtz said.
Despite the early accolades, advocates warn that consumers should not choose a home solely on the new information. Visiting the facility, talking to residents and getting information from the long-term care ombudsmen's office in each state are still recommended.
"Consumers should take the time to investigate thoroughly,'' said James G. Parkel, president of AARP, the nation's largest lobbying group for senior citizens. "Nursing home residents are the most vulnerable of all older Americans. We have a duty ... to promote their quality of life.''
Said Thompson, "This is a broadscale effort, and it will grow and improve over time, with improving data and new levels of collaboration to help nursing homes ensure high quality care.''