8News is taking action as the coronavirus has killed thousands of people in our nation’s nursing homes, including hundreds of seniors in Virginia. 8News is uncovering long-term care facilities have been plagued with problems long before the pandemic.
Long-term care facilities make up the majority of COVID-19 outbreaks in the commonwealth. There are currently 150 outbreaks, representing more than 3,100 of the cases in the state. Many argue nursing homes were a disaster waiting to happen and this pandemic is shining a light on the dark underbelly of the long-term care industry.
“The way we treat our elderly population in the United States who have to be in nursing homes is outrageous,” says Kay Van Wey, a medical malpractice attorney.
Our seniors, their age, underlying conditions, she says makes them uniquely vulnerable. Yet she and others argue the way we have be warehousing our elderly in America made them prime targets for this pandemic.
“We need to redouble our efforts and scrutinize what’s going on in those nursing homes,” said Elaine Ryan, AARP’s vice president of state advocacy.
In Central Virginia there are 29 current coronavirus cases at Beth Sholom in Henrico, one person died after a battle with COVID-19 at The Masonic Home Of Virginia, eight people have died from COVID-19 complications at Spring Arbor living at Salisbury in Chesterfield and one of the deadliest outbreaks in the nation is at Canterbury Rehabilitation and HealthCare Center in Henrico where at least 50 patients have now died.
“I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to her,” said Erika Kaufman. The Richmonder was left heartbroken after she was unable to be with her loved one in their final hours. She says, “I was the only person my mother had.”
Keith Hare President and CEO of Virginia Center for Assisted Living told 8News that long-term care facilities haven’t been give the proper weapons to fight this war, noting a lack of testing and personal protective equipment. He said, “We still have facilities saying they are using PPE in a way that they didn’t envision they would six months ago.”
However, infection control problems and weaknesses in patient care in nursing homes like Canterbury Rehab have existed long before COVID-19 says Ryan. She told 8News, “For far too long there have been low staffing standards. For far too long there have been very high costs and in some instances very low quality.”
8News has uncovered that of the 31 nursing homes in a 25-mile radius of Richmond, half get a below average rating. The deficiencies range from abuse and neglect to dirty showers to staff not washing or sanitizing their hands.
“Quite frankly some of those nursing homes should go out of business,” said Ryan.
There are 1.3 million Americans living in nursing facilities around the country, 32,000 in Virginia alone. Yet Ryan says for far too long state and federal regulators have turned a blind eye to systemic problems. Of the 16 long-term care facilities with a below and sometimes much below average rating from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS), the federal agency that oversees nursing homes, 8News found only four been issued citations.
“The enforcement of citations is an issue that we have had problems with for a long time,” said Lori Smetanka, the executive director of The National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care. She said it’s not surprising. “We think enforcement of violations can be stronger,” Smetanka told 8News.
8News has found infection control and prevention problems were a top violation in nursing homes last year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 1 to 3 million serious infections occur in long-term care facilities every year and as many as 380,000 people die from those infections every year.
“About a third of Americans live in low quality nursing homes,” Ryan said.
The main issue is staffing. “The reality is right now at all levels of nursing we are not producing enough nurses not just in Virginia but across the United States,” said Hare.
Smetanka told 8News, “We know that the staff are generally very low paid, they don’t have benefit and it’s a very hard job.”
As a result, many nurses and nursing assistants work several jobs rotating at multiple facilities. “If you are short staffed and are moving quickly from resident to resident to try and get tasks done it is more likely that things are going to be missed or specific infection control measure are going to be dropped like maybe you are not washing as well as you could be,” explained Smetanka.
Many argue federal minimum staffing standards for nursing homes are long overdue. Others call for enhanced regulatory oversight, they say right now the penalties for deficiencies are often so minor it’s more cost effective for facilities to accept the consequences of violations rather than make changes.
“We don’t have a life to waste in this country and certainly we need to fix our lens on nursing homes,” said Ryan.
So what’s a family to do when trying to choose a quality nursing home for a loved one? Ryan says, “I think that it is critical that families need to use nursing home compare.”
The online tool allows you to see detailed inspection reports, complaints and ratings for every nursing home certified by Medicare or Medicaid. All you have do is type in your zip code, city or state. You can even search by nursing home name.
“You must look at their star ratings. A facility that has a history of being a one star or two star has problems,” Van Wey told 8News.
You should also reach out to your local ombudsman. They know the facilities, can tell you about complaints and they advocate for residents. Smetanka also suggests you ask questions.
“How are staff trained do they ensure they are trained on and on-going basis,” she explained.
Hare said don’t let the web be your only resource. He told 8News, “The biggest advice and best advice that we give to families is to talk to the administrator. And talk to the leadership at the facilities and figure out what they do well what they specialize in.”
When visitation at long-term care facilities is once again permitted, Van Wey advises, “The best thing you can do is be there to learn, watch and ask questions.”