John O’Connor

Here we go again.

For what seems like the umpteenth time, another media outlet has taken aim at the skilled care sector. The latest salvo comes courtesy of the Washington Post.

You might be required to fork over some money read this love story, so here’s a brief synopsis:

After President Trump took office, many regulations were rolled back. The result? Well, here’s a direct quote: “Less accountability for nursing homes that treat their residents poorly.”

Not surprisingly, many people connected to the skilled care sector took umbrage.

Perhaps most notably, LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan replied that such assertions are “not based in fact.” She added that it is “simply inaccurate” to draw conclusions that skilled care operators do not meet quality standards, based on one organization’s analysis of fines against just 40 poor performers in a sector with more than 15,000 facilities.

“The focus on fines imposed as a measure of whether nursing homes are meeting quality standards — and even more important, whether they are providing good, person-centered care — is misguided,” Smith Sloan made this comments in the Morning Consult.

So which side is in the right? If I’m going to be an honest broker here, I’d have to say both.

On the one hand, it’s self-evident that skilled care operators have clearly benefited from relaxed rules. Look, we are talking about one of the most heavily-regulated services in the nation here. Any rollback of requirements – and clearly, quite a few have been recently reduced or eliminated – will benefit the sector. To insist that this is not the case is to deny an obvious reality.

On the other hand, it’s also true that the Washington Post piece relies largely on a single report with limited scope. To be sure, the writer should have, at a minimum, compiled more information before painting with so broad a brush.

There was a time when I wondered why the cycle of unflattering media coverage followed by industry outrage gets repeated so often. That’s no longer the case.

As for my newfound perspective, here’s the deal: Few people outside the field know how challenging it can be to provide skilled care services. It is a singularly difficult task. Yet it is performed day in and day out by thousands of amazingly dedicated and hard-working people.

But even in the best-run facilities, bad things happen. Mistakes occur. Corners are cut. Poor decisions are made. As a result, residents get hurt, become ill and sometimes die. Any of those outcomes can generate negative media coverage.

And if we are going to put our tribal loyalties aside for a moment and take an unflinching look at the reality before us, this must also be conceded: Too many of the bad things that do occur to residents could have been prevented.

This field is loaded with heroes. But it also has its share of sketchy characters guided by less-than-honorable intentions. That is, unless one believes that making as much money as possible by any means necessary qualifies as being honorable. As for supporting evidence, please Google “nursing homes” and brace yourself for what follows. Sadly, more than a few operators see residents not as the customer, but as the crop.

As long as preventable and unpreventable tragedies take place in skilled care facilities, they will be covered in the media. That’s the way the game gets played.

And yes, there are media outlets targeting facilities because it is a relatively easy way to compile stories that generate healthy page-view numbers. But it’s also true that too many facilities ensure that such media practices will not be in vain.

John O’Connor is McKnight’s Editorial Director.