WASHINGTON — The Bush administration announced a pilot project in five states Monday to help elderly and disabled Medicare recipients find good nursing homes.
In January, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will begin collecting information on nursing homes in Colorado, Maryland, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington state. The data will be published in April "to help make people aware of how performance differs across nursing homes," officials said.
Families will be able to go online for such data as the prevalence of physical restraints at a facility and the frequency with which residents contract new infections.
Medicare hopes more states will join the program; participation is not mandatory.
The agency has been accused of attempting to weaken nursing home inspection standards. In a letter to Medicare chief Tom Scully on Friday, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) complained about a proposal that would allow federal inspectors to cite violations at a nursing home as "widespread" only if they are able to document that 75% or more of a facility's residents are affected by a problem. The lawmakers cited a letter circulated by an agency official.
State and U.S. inspections are based on a sample of a nursing home's population. The lawmakers said a sample is used because "it would be too time-consuming and costly to review the records of every nursing home resident."
"If your proposal is finalized, thousands of nursing homes with serious violations could receive lesser citations," the lawmakers said.
The administration was criticized in September after reports surfaced that the agency was considering fewer nursing home inspections. Agency officials denied the reports.
Scully this week again denied any change was in the works. But the lawmakers warned in the letter that any attempt to change inspections "will confuse and potentially mislead residents and family members seeking to learn about nursing homes."
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said the program announced Monday will improve patient care. "If you're compared with your peers and you're not measuring up, you're going to do everything you can to improve it," Thompson said. He said he would like to eventually offer similar information on hospitals and other clinics.
The National Citizens' Coalition for Nursing Home Reform lauded the increased information but warned that it is not a substitute for vigorous enforcement of health and safety standards.
"Quality indicators can never substitute for annual on-site inspections," said Donna Lenhoff, the group's executive director.