Buffalo News: Editorial: Pass bill to better monitor nursing homes

12/8/18

A story in The News on Thursday showed that it’s far too easy for the operators of nursing homes that provide low-quality care to buy more of the facilities.

The state Health Department — which reviews applications to operate nursing homes — has submitted a bill to the state Legislature that would give the department more muscular oversight of long-term care facilities. The Legislature should pass the bill when it convenes in January.

The ongoing nursing home series in The News has shown that 16 of the 47 facilities in Erie and Niagara counties have been bought since 2007 by for-profit owners from out of town. Many of the homes are among the worst-rated in Western New York.

And the state has given licenses to operate at least 10 Buffalo area nursing homes in the last decade to new owners who had been fined for providing poor care to residents at other facilities.

Few families don’t interact with nursing homes. More than 1.3 million people are in long-term care across the country, with approximately 7,000 in Erie and Niagara counties.

It’s not an easy business in which to make a profit. Despite the aging of the baby boom generation, some experts say demand for nursing home beds is going down.

“There are fewer people in nursing homes today than there were 10 years ago,” said Tony Szczygiel, a retired University at Buffalo law professor who specialized in elder laws. Szczygiel said medical advancements mean fewer nursing home stays are required after surgeries, and new home care options let some people stay in their own homes longer.

“So there’s a lot of empty beds out there,” Szczygiel said.

Bill Ulrich, a health care consultant in Washington State, said national figures indicate the industry is at an all-time low of average occupancy in nursing homes, “hovering right around 80 percent, which is very low.”

Lower demand means some Western New York facilities will eventually close. The best outcome for consumers is for the homes given the lowest ratings by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to be the first to go. But more vigorous oversight by the Health Department would also help.

The bill in the Legislature would authorize the Health Department to appoint an independent quality monitor at chronically deficient nursing homes, increase the amount of the maximum fine the state can impose for violations from $10,000 to $20,000, and require more ownership transparency with individuals buying homes listing if their partners are relatives. The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, D-Manhattan, and Sen. Kemp Hannon, R-Garden City, hasn’t gotten out of committee.

Emerald South Nursing and Rehabilitation Center on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo was one of the troubled facilities featured in The News’ series. The home, previously operated by a company belonging to Benjamin Landa of Long Island, and later by his wife, Judy Landa, is due to close at the end of January. The Health Department imposed a $10,000 fine on Emerald South after investigating the June 4 death of an 87-year-old resident who fell to his death while attempting to climb out a window.

Benjamin Landa told The News that financial troubles at both Emerald South and Emerald North were caused by inadequate compensation from the federal government. He said the homes were running at a loss “due to the state’s grossly unfair Medicaid reimbursement schedule.”

Ulrich, the consultant, agreed that the Medicaid system in many states “does not come close to paying reasonable and adequate costs to care for Medicaid residents,” but said that nursing homes have traditionally made up the gap by taking Medicare and private pay patients that have better profit margins.

The margins are not low enough to keep Benjamin Landa out of the business. He is one of the largest nursing home operators in the state. And there are other facility operators who manage to stay afloat.

Dr. Jeffrey Rubin is chief executive officer of Elderwood Care, a for-profit chain that operates several of Western New York’s best-rated homes. Rubin says that getting the right mix of revenue is complex, involving Medicare managed care and private pay patients. “Having the right mix allows us to create a stable environment,” Rubin said.

It would be nice if the federal government’s one-star ratings for the poorest performing nursing homes caused them to clean up their act, but it doesn’t always work that way. The Gottfried-Hannon bill would at least help state health officials to not allow the owners of poorly run facilities to keep popping up in new locations.