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

Social Security learns from remote experience, plans field office openings

Published on December 13, 2021 in RINewsToday

On March 17, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly spread throughout the nation, the Social Security Administration  (SSA) issued a press release announcing that its offices would only offer phone service and online services.

However, in-person appointments at SSA were scheduled for critical issues, specifically for those who were without food, medicine, shelter, or those needing to apply for benefits or to reinstate them. This decision allowed SSA to provide critical services while protecting its employees and older beneficiaries, many with underlying medial conditions. 

Congress Expresses Concern Over Closing of SSA Field Offices  

Almost four months later, House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee chairperson John B. Larson (D-CT) and Republican Leader Tom Reed (R-NY) sent two letters to the SSA Inspector General Gail S. Ennis asking for a review of SSA’s telephone service during the COVID-19 pandemic and SSA’s process for obtaining medical evidence for disability claims.

The correspondence to SSA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) noted that as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, beneficiaries are relying on their Social Security now more than ever. Except in dire need, beneficiaries are unable to access in-person services and are relying instead on telephone services.

Members of Congress warned that beneficiaries, especially those from vulnerable populations who lack internet connection especially in rural areas or don’t have a reliable phone number or mailing addresses, are struggling to gain access SSA while field offices are closed.

“As highlighted in the OIG’s recent report, even before the current crisis the pubic relied heavily in SSA’s telephone services, but often could not access timely information or assistance. In fiscal year 2019, SSA’s national 1-800 number and field  offices received over 143 million calls – but handled fewer than to 3 of these calls. Callers who did not get a busy signal or give up while on hold waited to speak with an SSA employee for an average of 20 minutes on the 1-800 number and three minutes at field offices.

In addition, SSA requests millions of medical records each year from health care facilities and health professionals across the country to obtain evidence of an individual’s medical condition. The medical records request is an important part of the disability process, but the most recent report on this topic from the OIG is from 2001 and does not reflect changes to the process over the past nearly 20 years.

“Social Security benefits are earned by hard-working Americans, and we must do everything we can to ensure people are receiving the quality customer service they deserve.  These reports will provide important information to make sure Americans are receiving the service they expect and deserve from SSA,” said Larson and Reed.

SSA Responds to the Closing of Field Offices 

Almost two weeks ago, Ennis released a 58-page Congressional Response report, “The Social Security Telephone Service Performance,” detailing the impact on the closing of about 1,300 field offices.

The OIG found that in FY 2020, SSA received over 150 million calls, more than any other federal agency surveyed, and handled over half of those calls. Calls to field offices increased dramatically, from an average of 4.6 million calls per month leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic to an average of 7.5 million calls per month from April to Sept. 2020.

According to the OIG’s report, SSA’s telephone services shifted to more calls to field offices in FY 2020 when the agency closed its offices and provided the public with more field office telephone numbers. The increase in field office calls resulted in increased busy messages and wait-times toward the end of FY 2020. During the pandemic, SSA adjusted national 800 number operations to reduce wait times and the number of callers who received a busy message. National 800 number performance began to decline toward the end of the fiscal year, though it was still better then pre-pandemic performance.

When comparing SSA to 13 customer service call centers from 10 other federal agencies, SSA had a higher call volume in FY 2020 with similar or better performance.

To reduce wait times, improve caller experience, and ensure more calls are handled SSA hired additional 800-number staff, modified automated service options, and plans to implement a new telephone system.

“This [IOG] report highlights that SSA’s telephone services are vital to the American public. While I applaud the hard work of SSA employees, especially during the pandemic, the report also highlights actions that SSA is taking to reduce telephone wait times, handle more calls and improve caller experience, said Larson, noting that SSA will need more funding to do so and that is why he is supporting House Appropriations and Chair DeLauro’s proposal to give SSA an additional $1.1 billion in FY 2022.

Adds Reed, “This report provides clear evidence that with determined agency leadership and the hard work of dedicated staff, the SSA was able to respond to the largest management crisis in its history. With the almost 65 percent increase in phone calls during the pandemic the report also demonstrates the public’s clear and continued demand for access to the SSA’s vital services.” 

Opening the Doors

According to newly released 19-page SSA reentry plan, after more than 18 months working from home, senior SSA leadership are beginning to return to their offices, in early December. Employees are scheduled to return to their desks by Jan. 3. Along with in-person appointments, the agency will now also embrace telework. 

The agency will lift its current “work from home by quarantine” policy starting Jan. 2, at which point related collective bargaining agreements and pandemic policies will end as well. Reentry dates could change with the spread of the delta and omicron variant.

“We will use the evaluation period to develop, assess, and, if necessary, adjust any personnel or operational policies to provide public service and accomplish our mission as well as or better than, before the pandemic,” the SSA reentry plan reads. “Each [deputy commissioner] will evaluate their operations to identify ways to improve service, hire and retain the best employees and to operate efficiently including the consideration of potential space savings resulting from increased telework and information technology improvements.”

Over the next six months, the agency will review metrics on customer satisfaction, employee experience, service availability, workload, and environmental considerations.

“Throughout the pandemic, Social Security has helped many people through in-person appointments for certain situations in local offices nationwide and through options like online, telephone and video service,” Nicole Tiggemann, an SSA spokeswoman, said in an email to AARP, reported by Writer John Waggoner in his Nov. 11 blog posting, “Social Security Takes Steps to Reopen Field Offices.

“We know that those options do not work for everyone, says Tiggemann. “In order to improve service, especially for people who have had difficulty reaching us during the pandemic, Social Security will begin implementing the reentry process agencywide as soon as possible, including taking steps to increase in-person accessibility,” she said.

AARP applauds a return to normalcy at SSA. “Obviously, from our point of view, we’d like to see those offices open and staffed as soon as possible,” says Joel Eskovitz, director of Social Security and Savings at the AARP Public Policy Institute,” in Waggoner’s blog posting.

Nursing Home Care in the Spotlight

Published in the Woonsocket Call on August 4, 2019

Following on the heels of its March 6 hearing, “Not Forgotten: Protecting Americans from Abuse and Neglect in Nursing Homes,” the Senate Finance Committee held its second nursing home hearing this year, “Promoting Elder Justice: A Call for Reform,” on July 23, in 215 Dirksen, to study proposed reforms to reduce neglect and abuse in the nation’s nursing homes and to put a spotlight on the need to reauthorize key provisions of the Elder Justice Act.

During the two hour and twenty-minute morning hearing, Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) along 11 members of the Senate committee listened to the testimony of five panel witnesses.

In his opening statement, Grassley acknowledged that the work isn’t done yet to improving the care in the nation’s nursing homes and Congress must protect nursing home and assisted living residents and those in group living arrangements from harm. The Iowa Senator noted in the recently released U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report the federal agency that provides auditing, evaluation, and investigative services for Congress, noted that while one-third of nursing home residents may experience harm while under the care of these facilities, in more than half of these cases, the harm was preventable.

Calls for Bipartisan Efforts to Improve Nursing Home Care

Grassley called on Congress to reauthorize programs, such as the Elder Justice Act, to put the brakes on the growing trend of elder an abuse fueled by social media.

Adds, Wyden, in his opening statement, there is now an opportunity for Congress to come together to hammer out bipartisan legislative reforms to fix the nation’s nursing home oversight efforts. He urged his fellow Senate committee members to work to reduce the instances of physical, sexual, mental and emotion abuse in nursing homes, that appears to be increasing. He also called for a redo to the federal nursing home rating system because it does not reflect the increased prevalence of abuse.

During the first panel, Megan H. Tucker, Senior Advisor for Legal Review, of the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG), stated that abuse and neglect oftentimes are not properly identified, reported or even addressed. While most providers are delivering good care, Tucker warned that Health and Human Service safeguards are lacking.

Tucker testified that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) should use data more effectively and close the gaps in their reporting process to ensure that abuse and neglect are identified and the deficiencies corrected.

Concluding the first panel, John E. Dicken, Director, Health Care, of the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), discussed a newly released GAO report, released at the hearing, that detailed a growing trend of abuse and neglect of residents. According to one GAO report findings, abuse deficiencies more than doubled between 2013 (430) and 2017 (875), with the greatest increase in actual harm and immediate jeopardy deficiencies, and that abuse is still under-reported, he said. The GAO report also expressed concern over “significant gaps” with CMS’s oversight.

Leading the second panel, Robert Blancato, Coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition, called on Congress to reauthorize, the Elder Justice Act. With elder abuse becoming a “national emergency,” he urged lawmakers to dedicate funding for Adult Protective Services at the local and state levels. Blancato also stressed the importance of strengthening the long-term care ombudsman program, continuing the Elder Justice Coordinating Council, authorizing an Advisory Board on Elder Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation, and finally funding for elder abuse forensic centers.

President and CEO, Mark Parkinson, of the Washington, DC-based American Health Care Association (AHCA), representing nearly 10,000 of the 15,000 plus nursing homes in the country who provide care to nearly four million individuals each year, stated he was not at the hearing to defend poor care but to provide solutions to Congress to prevent such incidents from happening again.

Fixing the Problem

Parkinson testified that over the past seven years, facilities participating in AHCA’s quality initiative, have shown improvement in 18 of 24 quality measures. Specifically, there are less hospital readmissions, fewer antipsychotic medications being prescribed, staff are spending more time than ever before with residents and today’s nursing homes are more person-centered care today than ever before.

Parkinson called on lawmakers to improve employee background check systems, add patient satisfaction data to CMS’s nursing home rating system, address the severe staffing shortage and to adequate fund Medicaid.

Finally, Lori Smetanka, Executive Director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, ended the second panel discussions, by warning that more must be done to protect nursing home residents from abuse.

Smetanka urged Congress to take steps to enforce minimum requirements for sufficient staffing, establish standards and oversight for nursing home ownership and operations, prevent rollback of nursing home regulatory standards, increase the transparency of information and to strengthen and adequately fund elder justice provisions.

Now, with the Congress putting poor nursing home care on its policy radar screen, both Democratic and Republic congressional leadership must work closely together to come up with bipartisan solutions. Fix this problem once and for all.

Senate Finance Committee members — Senators Lankford, Stabenow, Daines, Menendez, Carper, Cardin, Warner, Casey, Brown, Cortez Masto, and Hassan – attended the July 23 hearing

To listen to this Senate Finance Committee hearing, go to http://www.c-span.org/video/?462733-1/finance.

For a copy of the GAO report, http://www.gao.gov/assets/710/700418.pdf.