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AARP, Experts Urge Congress to Reform Nursing Homes Now

Call lights going unanswered for hours. Diapers left unchanged. Dinners going cold on the kitchen bench in the absence of sufficient staff members to deliver them. Nursing home residents left unable to shower because there were no fresh towels. These were some of the stories and personal accounts Cindy Napolitan, a nursing home resident near Dallas, told congressional staff and other stakeholders on Thursday during a virtual briefing about life in nursing homes.

During the briefing, hosted by AARP and National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, she recalled one afternoon when her neighbor did not wake up from a nap. Two and a half hours later, “the nurse calls out ‘Code!’,” Napolitan said. “CPR is started and paramedics arrive. After an hour, the paramedics leave the room. My neighbor — someone's loved one — has died.”  

Loretta Colantonio — whose 89-year-old mother, Rita, died in a Maryland nursing home last month — also spoke of the poor conditions her mother and family faced. Of not being able to contact the facility. Of receiving news that Rita had contracted COVID-19 — twice. Of Rita suffering long periods of pain in her final days because only one nurse was available to give medication.  

“She deserved to die with dignity while receiving high-quality care from staff,” Colantonio said. “Instead, my mother’s nursing home experience was horrendous for her and a nightmare for my family.” 

For decades, a lack of sufficient standards and oversight has left millions of vulnerable nursing home residents without quality care. That’s particularly been the case during the pandemic.  

To improve care, experts who spoke during the briefing joined AARP in urging minimum federal staffing standards. “Nursing services are the core of a nursing home,” said Charlene Harrington, a registered nurse and professor emerita at the University of California San Francisco, “and nurse staffing levels are simply too low.”

Experts also called for more transparency and accountability around nursing home ownership and finances. “Transparency could help consumers make more informed choices in choosing a facility,” said Nina Kohn, distinguished scholar in elder law at the Solomon Center for Health Law & Policy at Yale Law School. “Is this a home that spends most of their money on providing care? Or is it one that’s diverting a lot of income into investors’ pockets?”  

Together, panel members applauded President Joe Biden’s recent plan for nursing home reform, which includes steps to address staffing and transparency failures. But they urged swift action toward realizing these much-needed fixes, saying that the time for nursing home reform is now.  

Watch a recording of our virtual nursing home briefing and read more of our nursing home coverage.

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