Health & Medicine

Ratings for nursing homes defended

FRANKFORT — Advocates for nursing home residents are questioning why Attorney General Jack Conway and 30 other state attorneys general have asked the federal government to temporarily suspend a rating system for nursing homes that they say is a valuable tool for consumers.

And Kentuckians for Nursing Home Reform — a consumer group — question why Conway did not ask for input from it or others who support the five-star rating system before signing the letter.

The rating system — launched in December 2008 — is a way to compare nursing homes based on state inspection records, staffing and other measures.

A nursing home receiving five stars is "much above average," and one star means "much below average."

Nursing homes have complained that the system is not fair, but consumer advocates argue that it provides valuable information.

On Aug. 20, Conway and 30 attorneys general sent U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius a letter saying that the system does not give families accurate information.

The attorneys general — and nursing homes — argue that it can be difficult for nursing homes to receive the top score, and that it's difficult to compare homes in different states.

The attorneys general argue that the five-star system should be taken off Web sites until a new system is developed.

But reform advocates say that nursing homes don't like the rating system because it's tough: Less than 10 percent of Kentucky's nursing homes have a five-star rating.

Jan Scherrer, vice president of Kentuckians for Nursing Home Reform, said Conway did not talk to advocates for nursing home residents, Kentucky's long-term care ombudsmen or other key state government officials who oversee nursing homes.

"We are beyond disappointed," Scherrer said. "I just think this is a clear error of judgment."

Allison Martin, a spokesman for Conway's office, said Conway talked to several stakeholders but declined to name them, saying that was his office's policy.

Several national health care organizations — including the American Health Care Association — have applauded the attorneys general for backing the plan to scrap the system.

But groups pushing for more transparency from nursing homes have criticized the attorneys general for suggesting that the system should be temporarily suspended. Some advocates concede that the system is not perfect. Some of the information is self-reported by the nursing homes with little documentation. But scrapping the system is not the answer, they say.

Conway, who is running for the U.S. Senate, has received thousands of dollars in contributions from nursing home employees — at least $6,000 out of a total of $1.3 million to date, Federal Election Commission records show. In a recent newsletter, Kentuckians for Nursing Home Reform questioned whether contributions influenced Conway's decision.

"That insinuation is completely untrue," Martin said.