GAO:  Nursing Homes Addressing the Factors Underlying Understatement of Serious Care Problems Requires Sustained CMS and State Commitment

GAO-10-70 November 24, 2009
Highlights Page (PDF)   Full Report (PDF, 78 pages)


Under contract with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), states conduct surveys at nursing homes to help ensure compliance with federal quality standards. Over the past decade, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported on inconsistencies in states' assessment of nursing homes' quality of care, including understatement--that is, when state surveys fail to cite serious deficiencies or cite them at too low a level. In 2008, GAO reported that 9 states had high and 10 had low understatement based on CMS data for fiscal years 2002 through 2007. This report examines the effect on nursing home deficiency understatement of CMS's survey process, workforce shortages and training, supervisory reviews of surveys, and state agency practices. GAO primarily collected data through two Web-based questionnaires sent to all eligible nursing home surveyors and state agency directors, achieving 61 and 98 percent response rates, respectively.

A substantial percentage of both state surveyors and directors identified general weaknesses in the nursing home survey process, that is, the survey methodology and guidance on identifying deficiencies. On the questionnaires, 46 percent of surveyors and 36 percent of directors reported that weaknesses in the traditional survey methodology, such as too many survey tasks, contributed to understatement. Limited experience with a new data-driven survey methodology indicated possible improvements in consistency; however, an independent evaluation led CMS to conclude that other tools, such as survey guidance clarification and surveyor training and supervision, would help improve survey accuracy. According to questionnaire responses, workforce shortages and greater use of surveyors with less than 2 years' experience sometimes contributed to understatement. Nearly three-quarters of directors reported that they always or frequently experienced a workforce shortage, while nearly two-thirds reported that surveyor inexperience always, frequently, or sometimes led to understatement. Substantial percentages of directors and surveyors indicated that inadequate training may compromise survey accuracy and lead to understatement. According to about 29 percent of surveyors in 9 high understatement states compared to 16 percent of surveyors in 10 low understatement states, initial surveyor training was not sufficient to cite appropriate scope and severity--a skill critical in preventing understatement. Furthermore, over half of directors identified the need for ongoing training for experienced surveyors on both this skill and on documenting deficiencies, a critical skill to substantiate citations. CMS provides little guidance to states on supervisory review processes. In general, directors reported on our questionnaire that supervisory reviews occurred more often on surveys with higher-level rather than on those with lower-level deficiencies, which were the most frequently understated. Surveyors who reported that survey teams had too many new surveyors also reported frequent changes to or removal of deficiencies, indicating heavier reliance on supervisory reviews by states with inexperienced surveyors. Surveyors and directors in a few states informed us that, in isolated cases, state agency practices or external pressure from stakeholders, such as the nursing home industry, may have led to understatement. Forty percent of surveyors in five states and four directors reported that their state had at least one practice not to cite certain deficiencies. Additionally, over 40 percent of surveyors in four states reported that their states' informal dispute resolution processes favored concerns of nursing home operators over resident welfare. Furthermore, directors from seven states reported that pressure from the industry or legislators may have compromised the nursing home survey process, and two directors reported that CMS's support is needed to deal with such pressure. If surveyors perceive that certain deficiencies may not be consistently upheld or enforced, they may choose not to cite them.