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In one central Illinois nursing home, staff allowed a man labeled as an “elopement risk” to leave and wander 38 miles away.
In another facility, two employees were caught whispering that one of the employees was having an affair with a female resident’s husband until the resident started crying.
These are two examples of what can go wrong in a nursing home.
“I wouldn’t really say that quality of care is good,” said Claudia Lennhoff, executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers, in regard to county nursing homes. “It’s always lacking.”
Yet, Medicare data suggests there are high-performing nursing homes through its five-star rating system. A review of 81 central Illinois nursing homes found that there are at least 18 four-star homes and at least 20 five-star homes throughout the region.
The rating system is not reflective of a nursing home’s overall quality, critics say. It is only a beginning step to finding a good home.
“I still do believe in the five-star rating program,” said Tami Wacker, a resident-advocate and regional ombudsman for the East Central Illinois Area Agency on Aging. “I know it has some issues, but ultimately it is going to give a family a starting point.”
Nursing home advocates and administrators say there are several additional ways families and potential residents can do to gauge the quality of a home. One of the most important tasks to do is to spend time at a facility.
Deb Reardanz, Clark-Lindsey Retirement Village president and chief executive officer, said people looking for a nursing home should go into the facility and make note of seemingly small details, such as how many staff members smile at them as they walk down the hallway. Clark-Lindsey itself has a five-star rating.
Reardanz said people looking for a good nursing home should also note how the staff members talk to – or neglect to talk to – residents.
“You can tell, I think fairly quickly, the sort of nursing home environment you’re going to be living in,” Reardanz said. “And, I think that is so much more valuable than any type of rating system.”
An in-person visit can be helpful to sort the good homes from the bad, Lennhoff.
“Go in unannounced and see what it’s like,” she said. “What does it smell like? Does it smell clean, does it seem orderly? Do people seem to be languishing and calling for nurses?”
Wacker said talking to the residents who are already in the nursing home without staff present can identify what issues and nonissues are in that facility.
“Those residents really do have a strong voice, and they know what they’re talking about,” Wacker said. “They know when their call lights aren’t being answered, or if the food is being poorly made.”
There are several online resources to help people find information on nursing homes. Among them:
Reardanz said the Medicare rating system only describes “a snapshot” during the inspection time.
The system scores nursing homes on a five-star scale for categories including health inspections, staffing and quality measures, which are based on resident-assessment data. After, an overall rating is calculated.
Many nursing home advocates are critical of the five-star rating scale because nursing homes self-report much of the data.
The Illinois Department of Aging compiles self-reported information from nursing homes on its Consumer Choice Information Reports on Long-Term Care Facilities website.
This information includes a breakdown of services the nursing home provides, such as wellness programs for certain diseases, religious services and languages spoken by staff members.
Viewers can search details at specific nursing homes, such as how many beds are available, what the level of staffing is, and see detailed complaint-based and recertification inspection surveys for every Illinois facility.
Wacker said the nursing-home look-up’s surveys can offer some of the most valuable information to consumers.
“When they’re looking at the five-star rating program, I’d recommend they go directly to those survey results,” she said.
The nonprofit advocacy group has an interactive tool where viewers can look up a side-by-side cost comparison for nursing homes in different cities and states.
The state agency has a list of annual cost reports categorized alphabetically for Illinois nursing homes that filed with the department. Viewers can search the reports for information, such as how much money was spent on malpractice that year, or how much money was spent on activities.
Additional reporting by Robert Holly/CU-CitizenAccess.org