By Jack Cumming
If there’s one thing that gets me riled up, it’s injustice. Injustice can come in many forms. It can be most insidious when our trusted news sources influence our national culture adversely by presenting biased reporting. That is an injustice. This is of particular concern to those of us who are getting old, are already old, and who are on our way to being very old.
Distorted News Reports
Two news reports on nursing homes and nursing care appeared today, March 13, 2021, that got my dander up. One was on the CBS Saturday Morning News program. The other was in the New York Times. CBS is, for many, the most respected source for TV News reporting, just as the New York Times is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the journalistic world. Thus, it’s particularly distressing to read half-baked reporting from these respected and trusted sources.
From my experience, nursing homes have gotten a bad rap during this year of pandemic. This downplays the courage of the many employees who have come to work under challenging conditions. All through these difficult months, there has been an incessant drumbeat of adverse publicity. Nursing homes have been portrayed as death homes – but that’s not a fair picture.
The Nursing Home Challenge
Nursing homes can be viewed as halfway between assisted living and hospitals. Many people this year have died in hospitals, but we haven’t demonized our hospitals. Why do we treat nursing homes differently? These homes have had to cope with many challenges, among them inadequate reimbursement for high-quality care, rising labor costs, mandated staffing ratios that disincentivize innovation, and more. During our pandemic year, nursing homes and their employees rose to the challenge and continued to serve under hazardous conditions while harboring the most COVID-19 susceptible people.
Of course, like any industry, the nursing home industry can improve. Shared rooms, reflecting the semi-private hospital room concept of the 1960s, have persisted long past their time. Federal oversight has not prevented some predatory owners from putting self-service before care obligations. But, that is not the norm. Most nursing home operators have tried to do what was right. We see regular depictions of heroism in intensive care wards in hospitals. We don’t see heroism in nursing homes given equal publicity.
Why Blame Nursing Homes?
We do well to ask why that is. The deadly contagion of COVID-19 first came to prominence when the well-managed Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, was hit – and hit hard. The cause turned out to be employees who had to work two jobs to earn a livelihood and who were not adequately protected from infection. The plight of these dedicated workers is part of the financial challenges facing the industry. It’s an industry that makes people uncomfortable. People don’t like to think about the vulnerable patients housed in nursing care. That makes nursing homes easy targets for blame.
When the media looked for whom to blame for the widening catastrophe, they quickly landed on the hapless nursing care industry and the international cruise industry. The coverage was not thoughtful. It was mostly condemnatory. And politicians piled on when they could have moved expeditiously to help.
Courage and Generosity
Of course, like all generalizations, there were heartwarming exceptions to the general blame picture. But few news outlets told the story of courageous owner-executives like Lynne Katzmann of Juniper Communities who quickly lined up a laboratory to allow testing of all residents and staff in her care. I’ve read no coverage of those communities where staff agreed to quarantine with the residents, living on premises, to create a hygienic bubble to keep everyone safe. Tyson Belanger, owner of Shady Oaks Assisted Living in Bristol, Connecticut, brought in trailers at his own expense to house staff who agreed to sequester for the duration. These heroic stories deserve to be told.
Thus, on March 13th, it was distressing to see two respected news sources – CBS News and the New York Times – provide such negatively unbalanced coverage. It makes me seethe. It’s outrageous. The source for the CBS story came solely from an employee union perspective. Unions serve a valuable role to give employees a voice, but they don’t present the management story, nor do they seek to improve operations while innovating to contain costs.
The story targeted one nursing home, and the union provided employees to interview. Because the story focused on a single example, the reporter said that he reached out to that owner without success. No effort was made to get the countervailing story that an industry trade association might have provided. That’s weak journalism.
Then, I turned from my morning television to the New York Times where I quickly encountered the headline, “Maggots, Rape and Yet Five Stars: How U.S. Ratings of Nursing Homes Mislead the Public.” You can get the tone of who the journalist blames from the opening sentence, “Nursing homes have manipulated the influential star system in ways that have masked deep problems — and left them unprepared for Covid-19.”
What to Do?
There’s nothing constructive in either of these reports. This is pure sensationalism dished up to a public tired of pandemic restrictions and eager to find someone to blame. What can be done? Perhaps it’s time to consider exiting the nursing home industry to find a more popular alternative. Click here for an article exploring that possibility. Click here for the CBS News report. Click here for the New York Times article (which may be behind a paywall).
Does this make you as angry as it does me? Let us know.