Medicare ratings for nursing homes rely heavily on self-reported data; recent inspection data are available elsewhere

Next time you look at Medicare’s ratings for nursing homes, be aware that most of the information used to make the ranking is based on self-reported data and is not verified by the government.

Consumers and investors make critical decisions based on these misleading “gold standards” that are doled out by Medicare, Katie Thomas reports for The New York Times.

“Only one of the three criteria used to determine the star ratings – the results of the annual health inspections — relies on assessments from independent reviewers,” Thomas writes. “The other measures — staff levels and quality statistics — are reported by the nursing homes and accepted by Medicare, with limited exceptions, at face value.”

ProPublica, the nonprofit, investigative journalism enterprise, offers a program, Nursing Home Inspect, that allows consumers to search and analyze the details of recent nursing home inspections, featuring tools the federal government’s Nursing Home Compare doesn’t have, including the ability to search using any keywords and the ability to sort results based on the severity of the violation and by state. (Read more)

The Medicare ratings also do not account for fines and other enforcement actions by state, rather than federal, authorities,Thomas reports, or complaints filed by consumers with state agencies.

Starting this year, Medicare will use this same type of rating system not only in nursing homes, but also in hospitals, dialysis centers and home-health-care agencies, Thomas writes. And federal officials told Thomas that “while the rating system can be improved — and that they are working to make it better — it gives nursing homes incentives to get better.” They cite the homes’ reduced use of physical restraints, and fewer reports of bedsores, as examples of improvement.

But current and former nursing home employees, lawyers and advocacy groups say some nursing homes have “learned how to game the rating system,” Thomas writes. Nursing home ratings have risen steadily since the program began, she notes. “In 2009, when the program began, 37 percent of them received four- or five-star ratings. By 2013, nearly half did.”

The Times analysis also shows that even if a nursing home has a history of poor care, it self-reports better. “Of more than 50 nursing homes on a federal watch list for quality, nearly two-thirds hold four- or five-star ratings for their staff levels and quality statistics,” Thomas writes. These same homes received one or two stars for the health inspection, which is conducted by state workers.

“These are among the very worst facilities, and yet they are self-reporting data that gives them very high staffing and very high quality measures,” Toby S. Edelman, a senior policy lawyer with the Center for Medicare Advocacy,told Thomas. “It seems implausible.”

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