Browser beware: Online nursing-home ratings misleading

Certified Medication Aid Brenda Walker, right, visits Jewel Sasser at the Retirement Ranch. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Mike Linn: CNJ news editor

A government Web site that compares the quality of area nursing homes has been criticized for being too vague, poorly updated and sometimes displaying incorrect information.

Officials say information on nursing homes displayed on the federal Medicare.gov Web site can be a useful starting tool for people researching nursing homes, but the site should be used as a guide rather than a complete measuring stick for choosing a facility.

On the site, the number of nursing home health deficiencies are listed and compared with state and national averages. But a high number of deficiencies may imply to some that the nursing home provides poor care to its residents. That assumption is false, said Catrina Hotrum, director of the Division of Health Improvement for the New Mexico Department of Health.

The most important deficiency on the list involves the potential for abuse, neglect or mistreatment among residents, she said.

A nursing home with 27 deficiencies — three times the state average — may be a better facility than one with just a few deficiencies because of the type of offense, Hotrum said.
State officials say patient care is most important, but a nursing home can be charged with a deficiency for having too many decorations on the walls — a potential fire hazard.

Such is the case for Portales-based nursing home Heartland Continuing Care Center, which according to Medicare.gov has 25 health deficiencies, three less than the nursing home with the most in the state.

But those deficiencies are outdated and have since been corrected, something the Web site doesn’t report, said Ranelle Tweedy, Heartland’s administrator.

There are no major problems with any of the area nursing homes, which include Heartland and Clovis nursing homes Laurel Plains Healthcare, Laurel Ridge Healthcare and Retirement Ranch, said Donna Kittredge, manager of the state healthcare ombudsmen program.

She said nursing home officials are required to post the most recent reports from state inspectors at the nursing home, which is more up-to-date and specific than the reports posted on Medicare.gov. They’re also longer and more tedious to review.

Medicare.gov ratings “sometimes are old and sometimes are inaccurate,” Kittredge said.

One of the best ways to judge a nursing home, health officials say, is to visit the facility.

Retirement Ranch was recently praised by the New Mexico Medical Review Association for dramatically decreasing the prevalence of chronic pain to 3.8 percent from 46.7 percent and post-acute pain to 28.6 percent from 88.6 percent among its residents.

On Medicare.gov, the non-profit nursing home is reported to have the fewest number of health deficiencies — eight — among the nursing homes in Clovis. The nursing home’s nursing staff also spends the most time with each resident per day (3.77 hours) among other homes in Clovis, the site reported.

Even so, Retirement Ranch Administrator Marv Schultz said state inspector reports can be flawed. For example, a state inspector who evaluates the Retirement Ranch may be different than the inspector who evaluates a nursing in Albuquerque, and subjective scores are inevitable.

But Hotrum defended the process by which state health inspectors rate nursing homes.

“It’s not as subjective as they like to believe,” she said. “Sure I have different staff covering those facilities, because not one person can do it, but abuse is abuse and a broken water pipe is a broken water pipe.”

Michael Donnelly, advocacy representative for AARP New Mexico, said government agencies aren’t the only ones inspecting nursing homes.

An advocate for more public information on nursing homes, Donnelly said several organizations in the private sector also rate nursing homes.

As for Medicare.gov, Donnelly said the rating list is generic and people can read the results in different ways.

“I would tend to think the information (on that site) is too vague to give everyone the true information they’re looking for,” he said, “but I have not received any complaints of total inaccuracies.”