Whether you’re a long-term care provider, a woman dealing in the cannabis industry, a high-tech guru or a Dr. Who fan, you have one thing in common. Fall is the time for your group’s annual convention.

High-minded theories, in-depth scrutiny and vocational soul-searching may take place. If one phrase covers the scenes, it’s that along with some back-slapping and frivolity, there’s also always time for deep, earnest business talk.

That much was true at the American Health Care Association annual convention in Nashville this week. The group’s two leading figures, President and CEO Mark Parkinson and Senior Vice President of Government Relations Clif Porter, in particular were full of dutiful discussion. 

In fact, at a Tuesday briefing with the media, scribes in attendance filled their notebooks and digital devices with plenty of insightful views about census, staffing strategies, legislative prospects and the like.

And then things got kind of weird, in what I would call a good way. Parkinson, the 65-year-old former governor and college debate champion, who has ably represented the sector for more than a decade everywhere from network television to the White House, veered into sensitive territory beyond usual wonk boundaries.

All anyone in a potentially tough spot wants to know is that somebody has their back. At this convention, Parkinson made clear he had his members’, and other stakeholders’ in the settings most-often associated with COVID-19 infections and deaths. 

While describing the zealous tactics of consumer advocates out for a pound of flesh, he somberly drifted into a softer frame of mind. It’s a sensitive side not often seen from a leader of this stature, though my colleague John O’Connor touchingly chronicled it three years ago.

In brief, Parkinson credited consumer advocates as being “really, really good” at portraying skilled nursing in a negative light. He noted they’ve lumped together the terms abuse and neglect, which often have nothing to do with one another, to paint with as broad a brush as possible an ugly image of the sector. “All of a sudden, it makes it appear that because the definition is so broad, that essentially every facility in the country is bad.”

“It’s been a real disservice,” he continued, letting the thought linger in the air.

When he continued, he reminded that quality, as gauged by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, has improved by almost any measure over the last 15 years. With typical Parkinson candor, he then admitted there are “isolated” cases and outcomes with “poor” results.

“We don’t want any of those to happen,” he told reporters. “And anything we can do to get to perfection, we’re going to try to do. But it’s very hard to get to perfection.”

For a second, it seemed like an invitation to “cast the first stone” would be coming from his lips, aimed at critics who might imply invincibility for themselves.

Then, he had arrived at his ultimate destination. Perhaps one he didn’t even know he was headed to.

“The portrayal of the sector as money-grubbing and greedy and horrible providers is incredibly, incredibly inaccurate,” he said, his voice rising.

“It’s actually cruel,” he added, his voice dropping. “Cruel to the folks who work in these buildings and have continued throughout the pandemic. They’ve continued to report to keep these people alive for two and a half years and they have to hear how terrible this sector is. It has to have an impact on them.”

Of course it does. Luckily, sometimes there are counterbalancing forces at work.

James M. Berklan is McKnight’s Executive Editor.

Opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News columns are not necessarily those of McKnight’s.