The Government Accountability Office issued a new report titled Addressing the Factors Underlying Understatement of Serious Care Problems Requires Sustained CMS and State Commitment. Not surprisingly South Carolina is one of the worst offenders. Reducing understatement is critical to protecting the health and safety of vulnerable nursing home residents and ensuring the credibility of the survey process. Federal and state efforts will require a sustained, long-term commitment because understatement arises from weaknesses in several interrelated areas—including CMS’s survey process, surveyor workforce and training, supervisory review processes, and state agency practices and external pressure.
The conclusions reached include as follows:
Concerns about CMS’s Survey Process. Survey methodology and guidance are integral to reliable and consistent state nursing home surveys, and we found that weaknesses in these areas were linked to understatement by both surveyors and state agency directors. Both groups reported struggling to interpret existing guidance, and differences in interpretation were linked to understatement, especially in determining what constitutes actual harm. Surveyors noted that the current survey guidance was too lengthy, complex, and subjective. Additionally, they had fewer concerns about care areas for which CMS has issued revised interpretive protocols.
Ongoing Workforce and Surveyor Training Challenges. Workforce shortages in state survey agencies increase the need for high-quality initial and ongoing training for surveyors. Currently, high vacancy rates can place pressure on state surveyors to complete surveys under difficult circumstances, including compressed time frames, inadequately staffed survey teams, and too many inexperienced surveyors. States are responsible for hiring and retaining surveyors and have grappled with pervasive and intractable workforce shortages. State agency directors struggling with these workforce issues reported the need for more readily accessible training for both their new and experienced surveyors that did not involve travel to a central location. Nearly 30 percent of surveyors in high-understatement states stated that initial surveyor training, which is primarily a state activity that incorporates two CMS on-line computer courses and a 1-week federal basic training course culminating in the SMQT, was not adequate to identify deficiencies and cite them at the appropriate scope and severity level. State agency directors reported that workforce shortages also impede states’ ability to provide ongoing training opportunities for experienced staff and that additional CMS online training and electronic training media would help states maintain an experienced, well-informed workforce.
Supervisory Review Limitations. Currently, CMS provides little guidance on how states should structure supervisory review processes, leaving the scope of this important quality-assurance tool exclusively to the states and resulting in considerable variation throughout the nation in how these processes are structured. We believe that state quality assurance processes are a more effective preventive measure against understatement because they have the potential to be more immediate and cover more surveys than the limited number of federal comparative surveys conducted in each state. However, compared to reviews of serious deficiencies, states conducted relatively fewer reviews of deficiencies at the D through F level, those that were most frequently understated throughout the nation, to assess whether or not such deficiencies were cited at too low a scope and severity level. In addition, we found that frequent changes to survey results made during supervisory review were symptomatic of workforce shortages and survey methodology weaknesses.
State Agency Practices and External Pressure. In a few states, noncitation practices, challenging relationships with the industry or legislators, or unbalanced IDR processes—those that surveyors regard as favoring nursing home operators over resident welfare—may have had a negative effect on survey quality and resulted in the citation of fewer nursing home deficiencies than was warranted. In one state, both the state agency director and over 40 percent of surveyors acknowledged the existence of a noncitation practice such as allowing a home to correct a deficiency without receiving a citation. Forty percent of surveyors in four other states also responded on our questionnaire that noncitation practices existed. Twelve state agency directors reported on our questionnaire experiencing some kind of external pressure. For example, in one state a legislator attended a survey and questioned surveyors as to whether state agency executives were coercing them to find deficiencies. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to know if the affected surveyors are consistently enforcing federal standards and reporting all deficiencies at the appropriate scope and severity levels. States’ differing experiences regarding the enforcement of federal standards and collaboration with their CMS regional offices in the face of significant external pressure also may confuse or undermine a thorough and independent survey process. If surveyors believe that CMS does not fully or consistently support the enforcement of federal standards, these surveyors may choose to avoid citing deficiencies that they perceive may trigger a reaction from external stakeholders. In addition, deficiency determinations may be influenced when IDR processes are perceived to favor nursing home operators over resident welfare.
Recommended Action includes:
Make sure that action is taken to address concerns identified with the new QIS methodology, such as ensuring that it accurately identifies potential quality problems; and clarify and revise existing CMS written guidance to make it more concise, simplify its application in the field, and reduce confusion, particularly on the definition of actual harm.
To address surveyor workforce shortages and insufficient training, we recommend that the Administrator of CMS take the following two actions: (1) consider establishing a pool of additional national surveyors that could augment state survey teams or identify other approaches to help states experiencing workforce shortages; and (2) evaluate the current training programs and division of responsibility between federal and state components to determine the most cost-effective approach to: (1) providing initial surveyor training to new surveyors, and (2) supporting the continuing education of experienced surveyors.
To address inconsistencies in state supervisory reviews, we recommend that the Administrator of CMS take the following action:
Set an expectation through guidance that states have a supervisory review program as a part of their quality-assurance processes that includes routine reviews of deficiencies at the level of potential for more than minimal harm (D-F) and that provides feedback to surveyors regarding changes made to citations.
To address state agency practices and external pressure that may compromise survey accuracy, we recommend that the Administrator of CMS take the following two actions: (1) reestablish expectations through guidance to state survey agencies that noncitation practices—official or unofficial—are inappropriate, and systematically monitor trends in states’ citations; and (2) establish expectations through guidance to state survey agencies to communicate and collaborate with their CMS regional offices when they experience significant pressure from legislators or the nursing home industry that may affect the survey process or surveyors’ perceptions