At age 88, Elizabeth Fee looked pregnant, her belly swollen after days of intestinal ailments and nausea. A nurse heard a scream from Fee’s room in a nursing home, and found her retching "like a faucet" before she passed out.
Laura Rees, Fee’s elder daughter, said she was never told that the nursing home had received Medicare’s worst rating for quality — one star. Nor, she said, was she told that state inspectors had repeatedly cited the facility for substandard care, including delayed responses to calls for aid, disrespectful behavior toward patients and displaying insufficient interest in patients’ pain.
"They handed me a piece of paper with a list of the different facilities on it, and theirs were at top of the page," Rees said in an interview. "They kept pointing to their facility, and I was relying on their expertise and, of course, the reputation of the hospital."
Fee had an obstructed bowel, and state investigators faulted the home for several lapses in her care related to her death, including giving her inappropriate medications. In court papers defending a lawsuit by Fee’s family, the medical center said the nursing home’s care was diligent. The center declined to discuss the case for this story.
The selection of a nursing home can be critical: 39 percent of facilities have been cited by health inspectors over the past three years for harming a patient or operating in such a way that injuries are likely, government records show.
Yet many case managers at hospitals do not share objective information or their own knowledge about nursing home quality. Some even push their own facilities over comparable or better alternatives.
"Generally hospitals don’t tell patients or their families much about any kind of patterns of neglect or abuse," said Michael Connors, who works at California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, a nonprofit in San Francisco. "Even the worst nursing homes are nearly full because hospitals keep sending patients to them."
Hospitals say their recalcitrance is due to fear about violating a government decree that hospitals may not "specify or otherwise limit" a patient’s choice of facilities. But that rule does not prohibit hospitals from sharing information about quality, and a handful of health systems, such as Partners HealthCare in Massachusetts, have created networks of preferred, higher-quality nursing homes while still giving patients all alternatives.
Such efforts to help patients are rare, said Vincent Mor, a professor of health services, policy and practice at the Brown University School of Public Health in Providence, R.I. He said that when his researchers visited 16 hospitals around the country last year, they found that only four gave any quality information to patients selecting a nursing home.
"They’re giving them a laminated piece of paper" with the names of nearby nursing facilities, Mor said. For quality information, he said, "they will say, ‘Well, maybe you can go to a website,'" such as Nursing Home Compare, where Medicare publishes its quality assessments.
The federal government may change this hands-off approach by requiring hospitals to provide guidance and quality data to patients while still respecting a patient’s preferences. The rule would apply to information not only about nursing homes but also about home health agencies, rehabilitation hospitals and other facilities and services that patients may need after a hospital stay.
"It has a substantial opportunity to make a difference for patients," said Nancy Foster, a vice president at the American Hospital Association.
But the rule does not spell out what information the hospitals must share, and it has yet to be finalized — more than a year after Medicare proposed it. The rule faces resistance in Congress: The chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., has included it on a list of regulations Republicans should block early next year.
The government has created other incentives for hospitals to make sure their patient placements are good. For instance, Medicare cuts payments to hospitals when too many discharged patients return within a month.
"Hospitals didn’t use to care that much," said David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. "They just wanted to get patients out. Now there’s a whole set of payment systems that reward hospitals for good discharges."
But sometimes hospitals go too far in pushing patients toward their own nursing homes. In 2013, for instance, regulators faulted a Wisconsin hospital for not disclosing its ties when it referred patients to its own nursing home, which Medicare rated below average. In 2014, a family member told inspectors that a Massachusetts hospital had "steered and railroaded" her into sending a relative to a nursing home owned by the same health system.
Researchers have found that hospital-owned homes are often superior to independent ones. Still, a third of nursing homes owned by hospitals in cities with multiple facilities had lower federal quality ratings than at least one competitor, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis. (Click to Continue)
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Are hospitals helping or hurting the nursing home search?