James M. Berklan

As we reach another important milestone in long-term care workforce development, an old parable comes to mind. It says that if you’re wondering whether acquiring a great new tool or developing a staff member is more important, try putting that tool in the hands of an incompetent worker.

Yet how often is the entry-level worker in a nursing home or other long-term care facility taken for granted or looked down upon? Often, employers themselves promote such attitudes, intentionally or not.

When it comes to the nurse-aide profession, this is not only counter-productive, it’s downright foolish and can be dangerous. That’s what makes the latest achievement of the National Association of Health Care Assistants (NAHCA) worth highlighting so much.

The organization, which was founded in someone’s basement with just 200 members, turned 20 years old on Friday. Now, it boasts more than 31,000 members across 29 states.

That’s a lot of good investing in some of long-term care operators’ most valuable assets.

Administrators and C-suite types who might think they can discount an organization of such “little people,” should think again. NAHCA’s mission is all about education, training and increasing staff retention.

“When we talk about quality, it happens at the point of care,” reminds Jeff Wellman, NAHCA’s chief operating officer and a member who’s witnessed 17 of the 20 years of growth. “The people who have the greatest potential to make an impact on the quality of outcomes is our members. They’re having a huge impact, and we’re educating them on how to do that.”

Wellman also points to NAHCA’s influence on cutting down turnover. Want a stable workforce? Find someone trained and then treat them right.

“When we had a lot of boomers in the workforce, it might have been OK to say nursing assistants are a dime-a-dozen,” Wellman told me Tuesday. “However, given how the demographics have changed — there are more older people than younger people — we have to think, as leaders in long-term care, how do we increase the retention of caregivers AND equip them to do an even greater job than now?”

NAHCA members are not just pushing their noses up against the window, looking from the outside in. The organization has a formal relationship with the American Health Care Association, the nation’s largest association for nursing home operators, and plans are underway to expand interaction with LeadingAge, the senior care and housing group comprising solely of nonprofits.

That will include working with Robyn I. Stone, LeadingAge’s senior vice president of research and the executive director of its Center for Applied Research. It also could mean participating in advocacy efforts, as NAHCA now does with some AHCA initiatives, Wellman said.

NAHCA also enjoys healthy relationships with groups such as the American College of Health Care Administrators and NAB, the National Association of Long Term Care Administrator Boards, among others.

But NAHCA, like any confident 20-year-old, isn’t content to rest on existing relationships. Over the next three years, a strategic goal is to “really bolster” connections with CMS, Wellman noted.

There’s no reason it shouldn’t be successful, given NAHCA’s recent displays of team spirit. Association leaders are poised to make sure QAPI provisions of the Affordable Care Act are disseminated and made meaningful to aides around the country — as soon as the overdue documents are posted, that is.

Now that would be a tool made better — and by an improved set of workers.

It all fits in with NAHCA’s mission of building stronger relationships with all stakeholders in the long-term care system. The organization is, after all, a group devoted to staff development at care centers and various companies around the country

“We’ve never encouraged our members to do anything but work diligently to commit exceptional care, in concert with their nursing and administrative colleagues,” Wellman says proudly.

Twenty productive years on the resume, many more to go.

James M. Berklan is McKnight’s Editor. Follow him @JimBerklan.