9 of 10 Nursing Homes Lack Adequate Staff, Study Finds
By ROBERT PEAR
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R. Scott Martin for The New York Times
Anna M. Spinella of Tampa, Fla., has become an advocate for legislation protecting nursing home residents. She said she had friends and relatives at Florida nursing homes that were "dreadfully short-staffed."
WASHINGTON, Feb. 17-More than 90 percent of the nation's nursing homes have too few workers to take proper care of patients, a new federal study has found.
But the Bush administration, citing the costs involved, says it has no plans to set minimum staffing levels for nursing homes, hoping instead that the problem will be resolved through market forces and more efficient use of existing nurses and nurse's aides.
The report, ordered by Congress and prepared by the Department of Health and Human Services, concludes that "it is not currently feasible" for the federal government to require that homes achieve a minimum ratio of nursing staff to patients, as many experts have recommended, largely because of cost. It would take $7.6 billion a year, an 8 percent increase over current spending, to reach adequate staffing levels, the report says.
Instead of imposing new rules, the Bush administration said, it wants to publish data on the number of workers at each nursing home, in the hope that "nurse staffing levels may simply increase due to the market demand created by an informed public."
Also, the administration said, it will encourage nursing homes to adopt better management techniques, so nurse's aides can achieve "high productivity."
The report, which will be sent to Congress in a few weeks, found "strong and compelling" evidence that nursing homes with a low ratio of nursing personnel to patients were more likely to provide substandard care.
Patients in these homes were more likely to experience bedsores, malnutrition, weight loss, dehydration, pneumonia and serious blood- borne infections, the report said.
Its conclusions about the prevalence of staffing problems were borne out in interviews around the country with relatives of nursing home residents.
Anna M. Spinella, 67, of Tampa, Fla., said she had friends and relatives at nursing homes that were "dreadfully short-staffed."
As a result, said Mrs. Spinella, an advocate for legislation protecting nursing home residents "a lot of people are left in bed, wet, and labeled as incontinent and bedbound when, in fact, they are continent, but the nursing home does not have enough staff to transfer them from bed to the bathroom."
State inspection reports confirm that concern, saying that patients at a Tampa nursing home were found in "wet, unchanged beds."
Phyllis A. Moga, 50, said she visited her mother three times a week for three years at a nursing home in suburban Detroit.
"Food was put in front of the residents, but there was not enough staff to help them eat," Ms. Moga said. "Many patients have dementia or are stroke victims, so they don't have the ability to feed themselves, or even to know they should be eating."
On two occasions, Ms. Moga said, "I caught a woman who was climbing out of bed and was trapped in the bedrail, screaming for help, but there was no staff nearby to help her."
In most nursing homes, the report said, a patient needs an average of 4.1 hours of care each day-2.8 hours from nurse's aides and 1.3 hours from registered nurses or licensed practical nurses.
Dr. John F. Schnelle, a co-author of the report, said the recommendations would require homes to have one nurse's aide for every five or six residents from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Currently, he said, it is common for nursing homes to have 1 aide for every 8 to 14 residents.
"In 2000, over 91 percent of nursing homes had nurse aide staffing levels that fell below the thresholds identified as minimally necessary to provide the needed care," the report said.
In addition, it said, "over 40 percent of all nursing homes would need to increase nurse aide staffing by 50 percent or more to reach the minimum threshold associated with their resident population."
Curtis R. Montgomery, 44, a certified nursing assistant in Monterey, Calif., said patients were more likely to fall and injure themselves in homes that were short of staff members.
"There's nobody to walk with the patients from the dining room to the bedroom, and they fall when they try to do it on their own," Mr. Montgomery said in an interview.
Sephia A. Nava, 43, a certified nursing assistant in Manteca, Calif., said: "Patients are supposed to be turned every two hours, and they're supposed to get showers twice a week, but when one nurse's aide is responsible for 15 patients, how can you do that? It's almost impossible."
The study highlights difficult choices that will increasingly confront an aging society. The population age 85 and older, the group most likely to need long-term care, is expected to double, to 8.9 million, by 2030.
Congress ordered the study in a 1990 law. The Clinton administration issued preliminary findings in July 2000. The Bush administration is expected to send Congress the final report and recommendations within a month.
To reach the recommended staffing levels, the report said, nursing homes would have to hire 77,000 to 137,000 registered nurses, 22,000 to 27,000 licensed practical nurses and 181,000 to 310,000 nurse's aides. This would increase overall demand for registered nurses by 5 percent to 9 percent, while the demand for nurse's aides would rise 13 percent to 21 percent. Nursing home executives said they would have difficulty finding the additional workers.
The figures reflect the number of additional nursing employees needed to care for Medicaid patients, who account for about two-thirds of nursing home residents, and Medicare patients, who typically have shorter stays.
Nurse's aides provide 90 percent of the front-line care in nursing homes. They help patients with eating, dressing and going to the bathroom, provide regular exercise for many patients and reposition those who are immobile.
Medicaid and Medicare, the insurance programs for low-income people, the elderly and the disabled, help pay for three-fourths of nursing home residents. So they would incur additional costs if nursing homes hired more nurses and nurse's aides.
Nursing homes are lobbying Congress to increase the payments they receive under Medicare and Medicaid, or at least to block cuts in Medicare scheduled to take effect on Oct. 1. Several members of Congress said they would vote for higher payments, on the condition that nursing homes used some of the extra money to hire additional nurse's aides.
Nursing home executives and consumer advocates agree that there is a severe shortage of nursing personnel, but disagree on the solution.
Consumer groups support minimum labor requirements. Donna R. Lenhoff, executive director of the National Citizens' Coalition for Nursing Home Reform, said: "The government admits that increasing staff to the levels recommended in the report would improve quality, but then asserts that no action can be taken until there's further analysis of the tradeoff between cost and quality improvement. That's a very weak response."
Ms. Lenhoff said that if nursing homes had more employees they could save money and lives by preventing many problems that require patients to be hospitalized.
Suzanne M. Weiss, senior vice president of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, said, "We oppose minimum staffing ratios" because they do not take account of the fact that some patients are sicker and more disabled than others.
One chapter of the report, written by experts in geriatric medicine, calls explicitly for "some minimum staffing ratio to protect nursing home residents."
But the Bush administration said, "We do not think there is currently sufficient information upon which to base a federal requirement for all certified nursing homes," and "any requirement would have to be balanced against cost."
Nursing homes are licensed by the states and must meet federal standards to participate in Medicaid or Medicare. About 95 percent of the nation's 17,000 nursing homes participate in those programs.
The report said the shortage of nursing personnel was "likely to become worse," in part because of low pay, meager fringe benefits and difficult working conditions at many nursing homes. Accordingly, it said, if the federal government or the states set new standards, they must be "phased in over a multiyear period to give providers an opportunity to recruit and train the required additional staff."
If the recommendations are carried out, the report said, the new demand for nursing personnel would probably lead to an increase in wages. Hospitals and home care agencies, as well as nursing homes, would have to pay the higher rates.
For registered nurses, the report said, wages would probably increase 2.5 percent to 7 percent, or 50 cents to $1.40 an hour, given the average wage of $20 an hour for registered nurses. Likewise, it said, the increased demand for nurse's aides would force employers to raise their pay by 10 percent to 22 percent, or 86 cents to $1.89 an hour, since they earn an average of $8.60 an hour.