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Increased funding must be tied to mandated minimum staffing – Herb Weiss
By Herb Weiss, contributing writer on aging issues
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a proposed rule to establish comprehensive staffing requirements for nursing homes—including, for the first time, national minimum nurse staffing standards. The proposed rule seeks to would ratchet up the quality of care in the nation’s 18,700 skilled nursing facilities, delivering care to 1.2 million residents each day.
“Establishing minimum staffing standards for nursing homes will improve resident safety and promote high-quality care so residents and their families can have peace of mind,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in comments on Sept. 1, 2023. “When facilities are understaffed, residents suffer. They might be unable to use the bathroom, shower, maintain hygiene, change clothes, get out of bed, or have someone respond to their call for assistance. Comprehensive staffing reforms can improve working conditions, leading to higher wages and better retention for this dedicated workforce,” says Becerra.
The Nuts and Bolts of CMS’s proposed ruling
Under CMS’s proposal, nursing homes participating in Medicare and Medicaid would be required to meet specific nurse staffing levels that promote safe, high-quality care for residents. Nursing homes would need to provide residents with a minimum of 0.55 hours of care from a registered nurse per resident, per day, and 2.45 hours of care from a nurse’s aide per resident, per day, exceeding existing standards in nearly all states. CMS estimates approximately 75% of nursing homes would have to strengthen staffing in their facilities. As the long-term care sector continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the proposed standards take into consideration local realities in rural and underserved communities through staggered implementation and exemptions processes.
In addition, nursing homes would also be required to ensure a registered nurse is on site 24 hours a day, 7 days per week, and to complete robust facility assessments on staffing needs. Facilities would continue to be required to provide staffing that meets the needs of the individual residents they serve, which may require higher levels of staffing above the proposed minimum standards.
CMS also proposed to require states to collect and report on compensation for workers as a percentage of Medicaid payments for those working in nursing homes and intermediate care facilities. These policies build on CMS’ recent proposals to support compensation for direct care workers in home and community based settings and to publish Medicaid data on average hourly pay rates for home care workers. This enhanced transparency will aid efforts to support and stabilize the long-term care workforce across settings strengthening access to high-quality long-term care both at home, in the community as well as in nursing homes and other facilities.
Attracting and supporting Nursing Home staff
Additionally, CMS announced a national campaign to support staffing in nursing homes. As part of the HHS Workforce Initiative, CMS will work with the Health Resources and Services Administration and other partners to make it easier for individuals to enter careers in nursing homes, investing over $75 million in financial incentives, such as scholarships and tuition reimbursement. This staffing campaign builds on other actions by HHS and the Department of Labor to build the nursing workforce.
More than 500,000 direct care workers provide care in nursing homes, assisting residents with daily tasks, such as bathing, dressing, mobility, and eating. This work, often performed primarily by women of color, is significantly undervalued. Direct care workers across long-term care settings earn low wages, rarely receive health and retirement benefits, and experience high injury rates. Improving working conditions and wages will lead to improvements in the recruitment and retention of direct care workers and enable nursing staff to provide safer care.
CMS and the HHS Office of the Inspector General called for increased transparency and enhance enforcement of existing standards. This would result from increased audits of nursing homes’ staff, improving nursing home inspections, oversight as to how nursing homes spend taxpayer dollars and cracking down on prescribing inappropriate antipsychotic drug prescribing practices. The proposed rule would also undertake new efforts to improve resident safety during emergencies.
Mandating more staffing during a severe labor shortage – pushback on an unfunded mandate
“It is unfathomable that the Biden administration is proceeding with this federal staffing mandate proposal. Especially when just days ago, we learned that CMS’ own study found that there is no single staffing level that would guarantee quality care, says Mark Parkinson, President and CEO of the American Health Care Association, a national nursing home trade group representing 14,000 nursing homes and other long-term care facilities across the nation taking care of five million residents each year.
“At the very same time, nursing homes are facing the worst labor shortage in our sector’s history, and seniors’ access to care is under threat. This unfunded mandate, which will cost billions of dollars each year, will worsen this growing crisis, warns Parkinson, noting that the proposed rule requires nursing homes to hire tens of thousands of nurses that are simply not there and then penalizes the facilities and threatens to displace hundreds of thousands of residents.
“Already, hundreds of nursing homes across the U.S. have closed because of a lack of workers,” states Parkinson.
John E. Gage, President, and CEO of the Rhode Island Health Care Association, with offices in Warwick, agrees with Parkinson’s assessment of the harm such proposals will trigger and its devastating impact on nursing homes and residents. “The federal staffing proposal is unfunded and is being implemented at a time when additional staff is simply not available,” he said.
According to Gage, six Rhode Island-based facilities have closed since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. Three others are currently in receivership. Arbitrary federal staffing mandates will result in more closures, and residents will be displaced from their homes just as they were most recently when Charlesgate Nursing Center in Providence was forced to close because of skyrocketing costs, a scarcity of staff and chronically inadequate Medicaid funding.
Unintended consequences of mandating minimum staffing
James Nyberg, president, and CEO of LeadingAge Rhode Island, with offices in East Providence, views see a staffing ratio mandate as a blunt enforcement instrument that does not consider the numerous challenges facing providers, including Medicaid underfunding, lack of workforce, and the diversity of resident needs. Moreover, the imposition of severe financial penalties on homes that are unable to meet a staffing ratio is counterproductive: fines siphon off scarce resources that providers need as they seek to address their workforce and resident care needs,” he says.
“Our state’s experience illustrates the numerous challenges and unintended consequences of a staffing ratio mandate: the severity of fines, how compliance is measured and calculated, compliance costs, backlogs of people in hospitals waiting for skilled nursing care after admissions have been reduced due to a lack of staff and other access-related issues,” notes Nyberg, noting that even those homes that are currently able to comply with the staffing ratio are doing so at an unsustainable cost.
While Kathleen Heren, RI Long Term Care Ombudsman of the Alliance for Better Long-Term Care supports HHS’s minimum staffing standard, the administration must adequately fund to train recruited workers and to pay a livable wage to retain them. “Rhode Island doesn’t have an issue with its nursing home inspection process as other states do, she says, noting that newly hired RI Department of Health surveyors are “doing a great job.”
“RIDOH surveyors only cite facilities, when necessary,” says Heren, noting that administrators can challenge any cited deficiency if they view it as unfair, and she doesn’t see a problem in the use of antipsychotic medications in Rhode Island facilities “but acknowledges that there’s always room for improvement.”
Direct Caregivers, mainly women, undervalued despite significant work demands
“Almost 80 percent of nursing home care is paid for with government programs (Medicare and Medicaid), so it is hugely important that those dollars provide quality care,” says Maureen Maigret, chairperson of the aging in community subcommittee for the Long Term Care Coordinating Council. She noted that studies show a clear relationship between staff levels and quality care but there is tremendous variation across the states in hours of direct care staff provided in nursing homes.
“Rhode Island has required 24/7 RN staffing for many years and a 2021 state law requires minimum direct care staffing levels although implementation has been challenging due to the critical workforce shortage. Importantly, the proposed federal regulation would require states to report on compensation for workers as a percentage of Medicaid payments. For too long our direct care workers, mostly women, have been undervalued despite the significant demands of their work. It is time for them to receive a living wage and shedding light on where our Medicaid dollars are going will help advocate for better wages helping to recruit and retain these essential workers,” she says.
There will be a 60-day comment period for the notice of proposed rulemaking, and comments must be submitted to the Federal Register no later than November 6, 2023.
For a copy of the federal register detailing CMS’s proposed rules on minimum staffing issued on Sept. 6, 2023, go to
For a copy of a CMS Fact Sheet on CMS’s proposed rules on minimum staffing, go to https://www.cms.gov/newsroom/fact-sheets/medicare-and-medicaid-programs-minimum-staffing-standards-long-term-care-facilities-and-medicaid
Herb Weiss, LRI -12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who has covered aging, health care and medical issues for over 43 years. To purchase his books, Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly and a sequel, compiling weekly published articles, go to herbweiss.com.
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