John O'Connor
John O’Connor, editorial director

It’s a warning every child dreads hearing: “Just wait until your father gets home!”

If you were ever on the business end of that promise while growing up, you knew your quality of life could soon suffer. For it meant that some severe discipline might soon be coming your way.

Of course, you hardly need to be a child to experience that feeling of pure dread. Simply run a nursing home. These days, thousands of operators are in pending-misery mode. But it’s because something else is on the way: final new staffing requirements.

Like so many other things our government gets wrong, this mandate springs from good intentions. Namely, the idea that skilled care facilities would serve residents better if they weren’t so  dramatically understaffed. No argument there.

But as for why that reality exists, and what should be done about it? That’s when consensus quickly bifurcates.

From an operator’s perspective, understaffing is largely a symptom of economic constraints. With labor costs already a significant burden, they argue that increased outlays here will only worsen an already perilous financial situation. As a result, they must take what they can get, with what they can afford.

Then there are those pushing for staffing minimums. Enough with that we-can’t-afford-more-argument, they’ll counter. Especially when the labor budget at so many facilities is so ridiculously low. And don’t get us started on the byzantine corporate structures that allow so many operators to obscure actual profits while pleading poverty, they’ll add.

Truth be told, both sides raise fair points. And if the debate here was about a search for the truth, things could proceed along a rational plane. But Washington — where rules for tax-receiving entities like nursing homes are made — does not really run on rational discourse. It runs on clout.

And right now, those with the most clout are putting mandates in place.

Meanwhile, there’s not much providers can really do. Except wait for the punishment that will soon be coming.

 John O’Connor is editorial director for McKnight’s.

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