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COLUMN

Happytown: One out of five Florida nursing homes on state watch list

Families for Better Care says there should be more public outrage about nursing-home oversight

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Speaking of the new year, there's another auld acquaintance we'd like to forget, and that's the ghost of nursing home nightmares past – one that's been haunting Floridians (or, at least, should be haunting them) since the Miami Herald unleashed its detailed investigation in 2011 of abuses taking place in assisted-living facilities across the state. The Herald found that long-term care is for many a long-term nightmare, and despite rampant abuses, the state has gone out of its way to reduce oversight rather than increase it.

That's probably because the state's long-term care industry is developing an ever-cozier relationship with state regulators thanks to the all-business-is-good-business administration of (you guessed it) Gov. Rick Scott. For instance, under Scott's watch, the state's Long Term Care Ombudsman, Brian Lee, was unceremoniously shoved out the door in 2011 for being too aggressive in trying to hold long-term care facilities accountable for their insufficiencies – even though that's what the Ombudsman's office is supposed to do.

Anyway, Lee, who is now executive director of a long-term care industry watchdog group called Families for Better Care, discovered something extremely disturbing – 20 percent of the state's nursing homes are actually on the state's Agency for Health Care Administration watch list for failing to meet minimum standards for care or for failing to correct violations noted during routine inspections. According to AHCA, watch-list facilities operate under "conditional" status, and "immediate action" may be taken if a facility puts someone's health in danger. However, some of those nursing homes are on the list for months – a couple for more than a year, one for an astounding three years – yet continue to operate mostly unhindered.

Lee says he doesn't think that many people realize just how many nursing homes are allowed to coast by on watch-list status. "In my experience, nursing homes only improve when there's intense public scrutiny," he says. "And obviously the state is not letting people know."

You can find the watch list buried in the state's online Nursing Home Guide, but if you don't know what you're looking at (or for), it isn't exactly easy to navigate. "Agencies hoard the data from consumers," Lee says. "And yes, over the years – little by little – they do release information, but only in indiscernible chunks that the public cannot make heads or tails of."

Such as this bit about Hunters Creek Nursing and Rehab Center, which received one out of five stars for such categories as "restraints and abuse," "decline" and "nutrition and hydration." When you click on the keys to decode what those stars mean, you're directed to a chart that tells you that the facility isn't really being graded on how bad or good the quality of its care is. Rather, "These ranks indicate only relative rankings within a region. All of the nursing homes in a particular region could perform better than the statewide average. Therefore, a low rank does not necessarily indicate a 'low quality' facility. Similarly, all of the nursing homes in a particular region could perform lower than the statewide average. Therefore, receiving a high rank does not necessarily indicate a 'high quality' facility."

Come on now, state of Florida – if a nursing home just calls a pressure sore a pressure sore, will you?

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