Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA)

The daughters of two nursing home abuse victims gave gripping testimony at a congressional hearing Wednesday, with one tearing up, as lawmakers aimed to intensify pressure on the industry to address ongoing abuse issues.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) — head of the powerful Senate Committee on Finance, and a longtime nursing home critic — convened the hearing, and said SNF reform would be a “top priority” during his tenure. He said he wants to crackdown on nursing home abuse cases that never get reported to law enforcement and fix weaknesses in the five-star rating system. One of the top officials for the largest nursing home lobbying group, meanwhile, proposed three ways to help avoid such cases in the future.  

“Every American listening today can be sure I will continue shining the public spotlight on this issue for as long as it takes to fix these problems,” Grassley read from prepared remarks. “It’s my hope that the oversight work of this committee will prevent elder abuse from claiming more victims, so that we won’t need to call more witnesses to testify about the horrible abuse their mom or dad experienced in a nursing home.”

One of the incidents that prompted the hearing was the dehydration death of Timely Mission Nursing Home resident Virginia Olthoff last year, which earned the five-star rated facility a $77,000 fine from the federal government.

Those testifying included Olthoff’s daughter, along with Harvard health policy expert David Grabowski, Ph.D., and Kate Goodrich, M.D., chief medical officer of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, who detailed some of the challenges the field is facing and actions being taken to improve care, respectively. Written testimony submitted to the committee can be found here.

Also speaking was David Gifford, M.D., senior VP of quality and regulatory affairs with the American Health Care Association. He said that nursing homes “failed” in providing care for mothers of the two witnesses, and he and the AHCA are “appalled and disgusted by the two devastating incidents” discussed Wednesday.

Asked to offer solutions to lawmakers on how to avoid such incidents, Gifford gave three recommendations: (1) Expand federal programs that attract healthcare workers to the nursing home industry; (2) strengthen federal regulations around reporting and sharing of information about employees who have engaged in abuse; and (3) Make ratings of resident and family satisfaction with nursing home care publicly available.

Gifford said the field is committed to addressing such abuse cases, but it needs help from lawmakers in addressing ongoing systemic issues with funding and staffing.

“AHCA stands ready to work with Congress, members of the Senate Finance Committee, CMS, and other providers to keep residents safe and continue improving the quality of care provided. There are robust regulatory requirements and penalties already in place to ensure patients are protected and corrective measures are implemented after a case of abuse or neglect occurs. But we can – and must – do more,” he said.

In a statement issued after the hearing, Grassley called the accounts shared “troubling,” and said he believes that continued oversight of the field is needed. He pointed out that two government watchdog agencies are now working on nursing home-related reports for Congress, and he plans to convene another hearing after the Government Accountability Office and Office of the Inspector General complete their work.