More than half of California's nursing homes, including four in Humboldt County, are asking to be exempted from new state regulations that would require them to spend more time directly caring for their patients.
The state's new staffing requirements for nursing homes, quietly passed in last year's budget bill, seem universally unpopular. Patient advocates say the new regulations don't go far enough and that residents remain at risk in poorly staffed homes. Nursing home operators say they can't hire enough staff to comply.
Under the new rules, which took effect in July but haven't yet been enforced, skilled nursing facilities must provide at least 3.5 hours of direct care per resident per day, up from 3.2 hours of care previously. That care can range from inserting a feeding tube to changing an adult diaper or helping residents with eating and bathing.
The California Department of Public Health, which oversees nursing homes, is expected to announce in late January which — if any — facilities it will exempt from the new regulations. But some patient advocates don't like the nursing homes' balking.
"We're appalled by the waiver system. It's sending the worst possible message to California nursing homes that it's OK to staff at levels that endanger residents," said Mike Connors of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, a consumer advocacy group.
Humboldt County's skilled nursing facilities — Eureka, Fortuna, Granada and Seaview rehabilitation and wellness centers — have requested such waivers.
All four are subsidiaries of Brius Healthcare, LLC, which is owned by Shlomo Rechnitz and controls 79 such facilities throughout the state, and have come under fire in recent years amid allegations that they have provided inadequate staffing and poor patient care while using their virtual monopoly on skilled nursing care locally to "extort" higher reimbursement rates from the state. A total of four wrongful death lawsuits have been brought against the local facilities, alleging that substandard care led to patient deaths, with two having settled out of court for undisclosed sums.
Researchers have strongly linked more nursing staff with better care, with some experts recommending from 3.8 to 4.1 hours of care per patient per day as a bare minimum for quality nursing home care. Having enough staff helps prevent falls, pressure sores and other problems that can land fragile seniors in the hospital.
A recent Kaiser Health News investigation found that for years nursing homes nationwide overstated staffing to the federal government. Now, nursing homes are required to report actual payroll records to remain eligible for Medicare and Medicaid payments.
During the first three months of 2018, 58 percent of California's skilled nursing facilities averaged at least 3.5 hours of patient care a day, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of payroll records submitted to the federal government. That rose to 76 percent when including nursing homes where administrators also were counted.
California is one of only a few states that set their own minimum requirements for nursing home staffing. Most states abide by federal government standards requiring skilled nursing facilities that receive money from Medicare or Medicaid to have enough staff to meet residents' needs, said Robyn Grant, director of public policy and advocacy for National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, an advocacy group.
Illinois requires nursing homes to provide a minimum of 3.8 hours of care per patient a day and the District of Columbia requires 4.1 hours, Grant said. Maine and Oklahoma take a different approach, establishing staff-to-patient ratios, rather than hours of care, for nursing homes.
Nursing home officials and their lobbyists say it's tough to find qualified nurses and assistants in California's robust economy, and they bemoan what they describe as inadequate reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid. They also have criticized a provision of the new requirements that 2.4 of the 3.5 hours of patient care must be provided by a certified nursing assistant, rather than another nursing professional.
Nursing homes need flexibility because "not every patient is the same, not every diagnosis is the same," said Matt Robinson, legislative affairs director for the California Association of Health Facilities, an industry group. "We're not opposed to more staff. But we want quality staff. We want to make sure there's a sustainable workforce to meet that mandate, otherwise it's just an empty mandate."
Robinson said facilities are applying for waivers on a "good-faith basis." If waiver requests aren't granted, he said, nursing homes may reduce their beds or even shut down.
In Los Angeles, the 300-bed Kei-Ai Los Angeles Healthcare Center has applied for an exemption citing a "workforce shortage." But Cynthia Sakaki Sirlin, whose 86-year-old father, a veteran of the Korean War, lives there says, "I think it's wrong."
"I don't know why they're doing this. They need more nursing staff to improve patient care, not less, the research shows that. So why are they asking for a waiver? Why is the state allowing them? That just rewards owners who are not willing to staff the homes," Sakaki Sirlin said.
Sakaki Sirlin, a nurse practitioner and a representative of Kei-Ai's family council, said that since the formerly nonprofit nursing home was purchased by a real estate developer in 2016, she has noticed more staff turnover. She worries that her father, a wheelchair user who can't feed himself, won't get the care he needs. Representatives from Kei-Ai did not respond to a request for comment.
There are nearly 100,000 certified nursing assistants in California, according to federal labor data. Patient advocates say many CNAs choose not to work for nursing homes because of the comparatively low pay and tough workload.
"If they paid them better, they'd have plenty of staff," even in remote parts of California, said Suzi Fregeau, long-term care program manager in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. The mean hourly wage for certified nursing assistants in California was $16.13 in 2017, according to federal labor data.
Some of the California homes seeking exemptions have been repeatedly cited by the state's Department of Public Health for inadequate staffing that led to patient harm. Among them are homes owned by Rechnitz, who reportedly controls 1 in 14 nursing home beds in California and nearly all of them in Humboldt County. He has faced numerous federal and state probes of understaffing and quality problems at his homes.
The CEO of one of Rechnitz's nursing home management companies said in a written statement that several homes submitted "patient needs" waiver requests on their own with data provided by the company. "All of these facilities prioritize the needs of their patients above all else and these facilities have a stellar history of complying with applicable staffing requirements," said David Silver, CEO of Rockport Administrative Services LLC. (The four Humboldt County facilities have repeatedly faced allegations of failing to meet mandated staffing levels and Eureka Rehabilitation and Wellness Center was fined $20,000 by the state last year due to inadequate staffing levels.)
"What we're seeing is that the facilities that already are understaffed — the facilities for which we do get complaints — are the ones asking for waivers," said Joe Rodrigues, the state's long-term care ombudsman. "We're not supportive of those requests."
Thadeus Greenson contributed to this report.
This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.
Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.