CMS Moves to Strengthen Nursing Home Safety and Clarity of Consumer Info

Published in RINewsToday on January 23, 2023

To improve transparency of nursing home consumer information, the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) through the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), will now post Care Compare citations that are under dispute by nursing homes on its website.  CMS will also take steps to protect nursing home residents from being inappropriately diagnosed with schizophrenia which oftentimes leads to improper use of anti-psychotic medications to sedate and chemically restrain residents.

“We have made significant progress in decreasing the inappropriate use of antipsychotic medications in nursing homes, but more needs to be done,” said CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, announcing the new guidance this week. “People in nursing homes deserve safe, high-quality care, and we are redoubling our oversight efforts to make sure that facilities are not prescribing unnecessary medications,” she says.

CMS’s actions advance President Biden’s goal of reinforcing safeguards against unnecessary medication use and treatments that was outlined in his State of the Union address to create an Action Plan for “Protecting Seniors by Improving Safety and Quality of Care in the Nation’s Nursing Homes.”

Tackling the inappropriate drugging of Nursing Home residents

Beginning this month, CMS will conduct targeted, off-site audits of nursing homes to determine whether facilities are accurately assessing and coding individuals with a schizophrenia diagnosis. Nursing home residents erroneously diagnosed with schizophrenia are at risk of receiving poor care and being prescribed inappropriate anti-psychotic medications. Anti-psychotic medications are especially dangerous to these residents due to their potential devastating side effects, including death.

According to the Washington, DC-based National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, in 2008, CMS first introduced a quality measure in its Care Compare rating system that calculates the percentage of long-stay residents (over 100 days) that were receiving anti-psychotic medications. This quality measure was initially introduced to address the practice of some nursing homes of illegally using anti-psychotic medications to sedate residents with dementia or other increased patient care needs, rather than providing appropriate hands-on care interventions.

The measure, excluding residents with certain diagnoses, including schizophrenia, Huntington’s disease, and Tourette’s syndrome, resulted in some nursing homes improperly diagnosing residents with schizophrenia, observed the Consumer Voice, a national organization representing consumers in issues related to long-term care, helping to ensure consumers are empowered to advocate for themselves.      

CMS’s new guidance acknowledges that there has been a steady rise in schizophrenia diagnoses since the quality measure was first introduced, charges the Consumer Voice, noting that it comes on the heels of a report issued by the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (OIG) which found that from 2015-2019 there was a 194% increase in the number of residents diagnosed with schizophrenia who did not have that diagnosis prior to admission to the nursing home.

“It is important to note that it is extremely rare for schizophrenia to suddenly occur in older people,” says the Consumer Voice, stating that the onset of schizophrenia generally occurs in someone’s late teens through their twenties.

CMS announced that it will begin to conduct audits of nursing homes with high rates of schizophrenia diagnoses and “examine the facility’s evidence for appropriately documenting, assessing, and coding a diagnosis of schizophrenia.” Facilities that have “inaccuracies” will have their Five-Star Quality Measure Rating adjusted. CMS will downgrade the facility’s Quality Measure ratings to one star, which would drop their Overall Star Rating as well. CMS will monitor each facility’s data to determine whether they have addressed the identified issues. After that, CMS will decide whether any downgrades should be reversed.

While Consumer Voice has expressed significant concern with the accuracy of CMS’s Quality Measure, it supports these actions. The Quality Measure rating often inflates a facility’s overall 5-Star rating on Care Compare. This action will help incentivize compliance and make sure the public is aware of these illegal practices in nursing homes, says the consumer advocacy group.

Increased transparency

Separately, CMS announced it plans to take a new step to increase the transparency of nursing home information provided to consumers by publicly displaying survey citations that facilities are disputing. Currently, when a facility disputes a survey deficiency, that deficiency is not posted to Care Compare until the dispute process is complete. This process usually takes approximately 60 days; however, some cases can take longer. 

Although the number of actual deficiencies under dispute is relatively small, they can include severe instances of non-compliance such as Immediate Jeopardy (IJ) citations. This level of citation occurs when the health and safety of residents could be at risk for serious injury, serious harm, serious impairment, or death. Displaying this information while it is under dispute can help consumers make more informed choices when it comes to evaluating and choosing a facility. This new information will begin appearing on Care Compare on January 25th. While citations will be publicly displayed, they will not be included in the Five-Star Quality Rating calculation until the dispute is complete. 

“We support anything that CMS can reasonably do to improve the health and safety of seniors in long-term care, especially those with cognitive impairment. When it comes to the nursing home industry’s concerns about new CMS rules, we think it’s best to err on the side of transparency. Seniors and their families need as much information as possible to make informed decisions about long-term care,” says a spokesperson for the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, an advocacy group whose mission is to protect Social Security and Medicare.

Local reaction:  “You cannot un-ring a bell”

RI Health Care Association

“We fully support improving nursing home transparency, safety and quality, and accountability regarding our members’ service to the residents and patients entrusted to their care,” says John E. Gage, President and CEO of Rhode Island’s Health Care Association, representing 64 of the 80 nursing facilities in the state. “Eliminating any inappropriate use of psychotropic medications and ensuring the highest quality of care is a shared focus of both CMS and RIHCA,” notes Gage.

“We strongly disagree with CMS’ decision to post of deficiencies that are in the process of being disputed through established CMS policies, regardless of their scope and severity, says Gage. “Posting deficiencies that, in many instances, are incorrect, inaccurately cited or cited at an inappropriate level of scope and severity, during an approved appeals process is unfair and could damage a facility’s reputation unfairly,” he adds.

According to Gage, doing this is akin to convicting someone before their full trial, (prosecution and defense alike) before the verdict is announced. “You cannot “un-ring a bell,” he says.

“As mentioned by CMS, we are just talking about a relatively small number of deficiencies,” states Gage. Rather than potentially posting erroneous deficiencies, he calls on CMS to speed up the process of conducting Informal Dispute Resolutions (IDRs) or Independent Dispute Resolutions (IIDRs) to no more than forty-five (45) days to ensure that accurate information is posted timely. IDRs and IIDRs are two different options from CMS that nursing homes can choose to appeal of cited deficiencies.

“As to the changes to the public reporting and the Five-Star Quality Rating System, we are disappointed that the Biden Administration and CMS have apparently made this determination administratively, without any comment period to allow for an opportunity for nursing homes and the public to provide feedback,” says Gage.

LeadingAge RI

“I appreciate CMS’s goal of increasing oversight of unnecessary antipsychotic medication use, although it should be noted that there has been a National Partnership to reduce the unnecessary use of antipsychotic drugs for years, so the industry has been very engaged in these efforts already,” notes James Nyberg, Executive Director of LeadingAge RI, a not-for-profit membership organization comprised of not-for-profit providers of aging services. 

Nyberg expresses concern about CMS posting deficiencies that are under dispute publicly. “That is taking a guilty before proven innocent approach, which is unfair and detrimental to providers. There is an existing process to resolve disputes over deficiencies, and this seems to short-circuit it, especially when deficiencies can be/and are overturned during the process.  One more blow to a beleaguered industry,” he says.

Long-Term Care Ombudsman

“The inappropriate use of antipsychotic medications in nursing homes has been an on ongoing issue for many years,” observes Kathleen Heren, Rhode Island’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman. “It takes a skilled practitioner who gives a battery of tests to diagnose someone with schizophrenia. This shouldn’t be determined by a hospital intern who spends 20 minutes with an agitated resident in a hospital emergency room,” she says.

According to Heren, schizophrenia has an early onset [about 4% of schizophrenia arise before the age of 15, and about 1% before the age of 10].  A 78-year -old resident does not become schizophrenic all of a sudden because he or she is agitated. “I can say that I have not seen many deficiencies given to Rhode Island nursing homes for overusing anti-psychotic medications,” she says, because of the efforts of  Health Care Centrics, Rhode Island’s Quality Assurance organization, that has provided in-depth staff training on the use of these drugs. The surveyors from the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDoH) are very quick to cite facilities for not following guidelines in the inappropriate use of these drugs.

Heren says that there have been cases where RIDOH has rescinded a deficiency based on the input received by the survey team during the Informal Dispute Resolution process. “There are some facilities that are continually receiving deficiencies and that families should be able to see why a deficiency was given and a facilities response as to why it was considered unfair,” she says.

CMS Actions promote quality of care

RI Department of Health

“At the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDoH), one of our major focus areas is monitoring and ensuring that nursing homes and other healthcare facilities provide the highest quality of care and services in a clean and safe environment, says Joseph Wendelken, RIDoH’s Public Information Officer. 

“We will continue to do everything we can to protect patients and residents, which includes following any new CMS protocols and partnering with CMS on new initiatives,” Wendelken says. 

Senior Agenda Coalition of RI

Adds Maureen Maigret, Policy Advisor for the Senior Agenda Coalition of RI, “Rhode Island nursing homes have generally provided good quality of care over the years,” acknowledging that improvements can always be made. “Both of these changes are intended to promote better quality care,” she says. “If people are erroneously coded as having schizophrenia, they may be subject to poorer care and harmed by being prescribed inappropriate medication. Posting inspection citations under dispute on Nursing Home Compare with a notation they are under dispute is important in that resolution of the dispute could take 60 days or longer and in the meantime the public remains unaware of what could be significant deficiencies which could impact their decisions,” states Maigret says.

The QSO memo — Updates to the Nursing Home Care Compare website and Five-Star Quality Rating System: Adjusting Quality Measure Ratings Based on Erroneous Schizophrenia Coding, and Posting Citations Under Dispute — is available here for review:

https://www.cms.gov/medicare/provider-enrollment-and-certification/surveycertificationgeninfo/policy-and-memos-states/updates-nursing-home-care-compare-website-and-five-star-quality-rating-system-adjusting-quality

HHS Climate and Health Outlook tackles climate-related hazards

Published in RINews Today on July 25, 2022

Over two and a half months ago, the Biden administration launched a new initiative, called the Climate and Health Outlook, to serve as a resource to help people, health professionals, and communities protect individual and community health impacted by climate events.

On May 6, 2022, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE) launched the first installment of its new public information series called the Climate Health Outlook – https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/climate-health-outlook-may-2022.pdf (Outlook). HHS’s new Outlook series connects weather forecasts to health resources to create actionable data they say will saves lives and reduces illness and health risks associated with climate-related hazards like extreme heat, wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, and vector-borne diseases that impact human health.

According to HHS, this inaugural edition of the Outlook will take on extreme heat, which has been a key target of the Biden administration’s efforts to build resilience to the impacts of climate change. As part of this and future editions, the Outlook series will add a health lens to seasonal weather and climate outlooks from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to inform health professionals and the public about weather- and climate-related health risks months in advance and provide resources to prepare.

“We’ve seen what exposure to extreme heat can do,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in a statement announcing the new federal initiative. “It can lead to illness and death and makes it much harder to do a day’s work outdoors. Many people in the United States have jobs that require them to work outside to feed their families regardless of the weather. Our new Climate and Health Outlook protects people and their health by giving advance notice to the communities that will be most impacted in the coming months.” she said.

“Our communities across the country will soon be facing heatwaves that will be an additional strain on our health systems,” adds  Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Rachel Levine. “This information will save lives when used by public health officials, employers with outdoor workers, and schools and local health departments and the individuals they serve. Having information in advance can reduce illness and deaths from extreme heat exposure,” she says.

The Outlook illustrates where the greatest health risks from heat will be in the United States during the early 2022 heat season, presenting estimates of which U.S. counties are expected to experience extremely hot days and identifies the vulnerable populations in those counties that could be impacted by heat exposure. It also provides a set of actionable resources from HHS that are targeted to the public, specific populations, health care professionals, and public health officials to reduce health risks from heat.

HHS says that the Outlook will be updated and improved regularly as future data and feedback are collected. Future editions will address other climate-related threats to the health of people living in the United States, with a focus on those most vulnerable. For a copy of  HHS’s Office of Climate Change and Health Equity’s May issue of Climate and Health Outlook: Extreme Heat, go  to https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/climate-health-outlook-may-2022.pdf.

On a Personal Note… Surviving the Dog Days of Summer

Just days ago, Rhode Island officials announced its first heat wave  It took 3 days of 90 degrees or above to make this call. 

Despite the fact that 618 people throughout the nation killed by extreme heat annually, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable.  

The following tips provided by CDC’s website provide sound tips for helping us stay safe when the temperatures soar.

During an ongoing heat wave, seniors, infants and young children, and people with mental illness, those overweight, and chronic diseases (including heart disease) are at the highest risk of heat-induced illness that can cause a person to become confused or lose consciousness. Seek medical attention immediately for anyone showing signs of heat stroke. Heat stroke can be life-threatening.

With temperatures rising, wear appropriate clothing that is lightweight, light-colored and loose fitting. 

During extreme heat and humidity, stay in your air-conditioned house or air-conditioned room, if you have that option. Electric fans may provide temporary comfort, but when the outside temperature soars into the high 90s, they won’t prevent heat-related illnesses. Try taking a cool shower or bath. 

Keep in mind: Use your stove and oven less during the heatwave to reduce the inside temperature. Try traveling to an air-conditioned place like a shopping mall, movie theatre, or even go to your local library or cooling shelter? Each city and town, or one nearby, should have cooling centers open. In Providence pools and splash pads have extended hours. For a listing of cooling shelters by city and town, go to https://riema.ri.gov/planning-mitigation/resources-businesses/cooling-centers  (If you need additional assistance call 2-1-1). Even being in a cool space for just a few hours can help your body stay cooler when you have to go back outside.

During a heatwave, go to your local gym to exercise so you can limit your outdoor activities. If you go outside, do this in the morning or evening hours when it’s cool. Start your working or exercise slowly and slowly pick up the pace. If the heat makes your heart pound and you gasp for breath, stop all activity. Go immediately to a shady area especially if you become lightheaded, confused, weak or faint, to cool off, this will allow your body to recover from the heat. Drink water.

Sunburn can affect your body’s ability to cool down and can make you dehydrated. So, when going outside, wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and put on sunscreen of SPF 15 (“broad spectrum” or “UVA/UVB protection”) or higher 30 minutes before going outside.  Continue to reapply it according to the package directions. 

Hot heavy meals can heat up your body. When going outside drink plenty of fluids, regardless of how active you are.  Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink. Most important, if your doctor limits the amount you drink or has you on water pills, ask how much you should drink while the weather is hot.

Also, stay away from very sugary or alcoholic drinks because they cause you to lose more body fluid. You might consider avoiding cold drinks, because they can cause stomach cramps. Room temperature water is better now.

Finally, heavy sweating removes salt and minerals from your body, and they need to be replaced.  A sports drink can replace the salt and minerals you lose when sweating. If you are on a low-salt diet, have diabetes, high blood pressure, or other chronic conditions, always talk with your doctor before drinking a sports beverage or taking salt tablets. 

Do not leave children or your pets in cars that can quickly heat up to dangerously high temperatures even with a window cracked open. You put them at risk of getting heat stroke or dying. If you leave your pets outside, leave them plenty of water and in a shaded area. Watch metal pieces in your car, like seatbelts, which can heat up to unbelievably high – and even burning to the skin – temperatures.

During a heat wave, always visit or get in touch with older adults (family or friends) at risk at least twice a day and closely watch them for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Infants and young children, of course, need much more frequent watching.

For CDC’s website page on “Extreme Heat” go to https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/.

For warning signs and symptoms of heat-related illness and what to do, go  to https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/warning.html.

Nursing facilities gear up for October vaccination deadline

Published in RI News Today on September 20, 2021

Over a month ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) issued a Health Alert Network (HAN) Health Advisory to public health practitioners and clinicians about the urgent need to increase COVID-19 vaccination coverage across the United States to prevent surges in new infections that could increase COVID-19 related morbidity and mortality, overwhelm health care capacity, and widen existing COVID-19-related health disparities.

According to the July 27 Health Advisory, there is growing medical evidence that the Delta variant is at least twice as contagious as the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. It is reported that most cases of COVID-19 hospitalizations and death are in unvaccinated people; however, there are breakthrough infections in vaccinated people because of the surge of infections among the unvaccinated. This is a particular concern in nursing homes, where vaccinated residents are infected by unvaccinated staff.

The Biden Administration announced plans in August to require COVID-19 vaccinations for nursing home staff as a condition for those facilities to continue receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funding. Rhode Island Governor Daniel J. McKee, along with other states’ leadership, took similar steps to protect nursing home residents by requiring all healthcare staff to be vaccinated and the new federal mandate will ensure consistent and equitable standards throughout the country. At a COVID-19 update held at the state capitol in early August, McKee called for the new vaccine mandate (as a term of employment) to take effect.

COVID Cases Rise in Rhode Island Nursing  Homes

Coronavirus continues to increase in nursing homes, warns AARP Rhode Island in a statement issued on September 17. According to the latest data from AARP’s Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard, in the four weeks ending August 22, resident cases increasing from 0.05 to 0.34 per 100 residents and staff cases increasing from 0.11 to 0.88 per 100 residents since the mid-July report.

Nationally, cases are concentrated among the unvaccinated, and those residents were three times as likely to contract COVID-19 last month compared to residents who are fully vaccinated.

The last eight months have shown vaccines to be the most effective tool in preventing COVID-19 related deaths, says AARP Rhode Island’s statement. There were modest increases in vaccination rates during this four-week period, with 92% of Rhode Island Nursing Home residents and 76% of staff fully vaccinated as of August 22.

“This month’s dashboard underscores why all staff and residents in long-term care facilities must be vaccinated as quickly as possible,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director, Catherine Taylor. “For unvaccinated nursing home residents, their risk of an infection is back up to the levels we saw a year ago. Too many people in Rhode Island who lived and worked in nursing facilities have died from COVID-19, and no one wants to see that tragedy repeated,” said Taylor.

The AARP Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard also found over a 300% increase in RI nursing homes reporting an urgent need for PPE in the period ending August 22, with almost 10% of facilities in Rhode Island reporting they did not have sufficient PPE.

Nursing Facilities Struggling to Maintain Adequate Staffing

While the Rhode Island Health Care Association supports Governor McKee’s decision to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations across the health care continuum, says John E. Gage, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Health Care Association, representing 64 of the 77 nursing facilities in the Ocean State, nursing homes are struggling to maintain their staffing levels to meet the state’s direct care requirements, but many are struggling to maintain that level, he says, noting that next month’s deadline requiring nursing facility staff will further strain the already “precarious staffing crisis in the state’s nursing facilities”.

Gage noted that the state’s Department of Health has surveyed facilities this week regarding the number of staff that will be unable to enter facilities in two weeks because they are unvaccinated. “It is reported that nursing facilities will lose 7% of their workforce – 706 staff of 10,137 in the workforce across all disciplines,” says Gage, noting that 495 out of the 706 are clinical staff members.

According to Gage, “Rhode Island nursing facilities are ranked the fourth best state for resident vaccinations and fifth best state for staff vaccination rates in the country. He notes, when taking a look at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data released last week, in Rhode Island 92.65% of residents are fully vaccinated compared to 84.1% nationwide. As to staff, 78.99% of Rhode Island’s nursing facility staff are fully vaccinated compared to 63.7% nationwide.

Gage says, “The vaccine mandate will further add to the challenge of staff retention and recruitment. We are facing the implementation of a minimum staffing mandate to take effect 1/1/22. There’s not adequate staff available to hire, and the legislature did not provide for adequate funding to achieve the upcoming mandate”. 

Finally, Gage notes that while visitation is currently open at Rhode Island nursing facilities there are many factors that make it difficult to stop the spread of COVID-19 from staff to residents. “Our staff are members of each and every community in Rhode Island  They interact with others outside of work who may or may not be vaccinated, and many have children under the age of 12 who are not eligible for vaccination. To further complicate matters, there are breakthrough cases among those who are fully vaccinated, especially now with the prevalence of the Delta variant,” says Gage.

“Rhode Island facilities will continue to take all steps necessary to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 infections,” says Gage, noting that vaccinations are the key to eradicating this pandemic, together with the proper use of personal protective equipment.  

The AARP Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard analyzes federally reported data in four-week periods going back to June 1, 2020. Using this data, the AARP Public Policy Institute, in collaboration with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio, created the dashboard to provide snapshots of the virus’ infiltration into nursing homes and impact on nursing home residents and staff, with the goal of identifying specific areas of concern at the national and state levels in a timely manner.

The full Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard is available  www.AARP.org/nursinghomedashboard, and an AARP story about this month’s data is available here. For more information on how COVID is impacting nursing homes and AARP’s advocacy on this issue, visit www.aarp.org/nursinghomes.