On July 23, 2019, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee held a hearing where a representative of the Government Accountability Office testified on elder abuse in nursing homes. At the hearing, reported at GAO-19-671T, the GAO representative discussed the June 2019 GAO report entitled “Improved Oversight Needed to Better Protect Residents from Abuse” (GAO-19-433).
The GAO analysis of CMS data found that, while relatively rare, abuse deficiencies cited in nursing homes more than doubled, increasing from 430 in 2013 to 875 in 2017, with the largest increase in severe cases. In light of the increased number and severity of abuse deficiencies, GAO testified that, while it is imperative that CMS have strong nursing home oversight in place to protect residents from abuse, there are several oversight gaps that may limit the agency’s ability to do so. The gaps include:
- Information on abuse and perpetrator type is not readily available. CMS does not require state survey agencies to record the type of abuse and perpetrator and, when this information is recorded, it cannot be easily analyzed. Without this information, CMS lacks key information and, therefore, cannot take actions—such as tailoring prevention and investigation activities—to address the most prevalent types of abuse or perpetrators.
- Facility-reported incidents lack key information. CMS has not issued guidance on what nursing homes should include when they self-report abuse incidents to state survey agencies. This contributes to delays in state agency investigations and the inability to prioritize investigations for quick response.
- Gaps in CMS processes can result in delayed referrals to law enforcement. CMS requires a state survey agency to make a referral to law enforcement only after abuse is substantiated—a process that can often take weeks or months. As a result, law enforcement investigations can be significantly delayed. GAO reported that delay in receiving referrals limits law enforcement’s ability to collect evidence and prosecute cases—for example, bedding associated with potential sexual abuse may have been washed, and a victim’s wounds may have healed.
The report on which the GAO testimony was based made several recommendations, including that CMS:
- require state survey agencies to submit data on abuse and perpetrator type;
- develop guidance on what abuse information nursing homes should self-report; and
- require state survey agencies to immediately refer to law enforcement any suspicion of a crime.
GAO reported that the Department of Health and Human Services concurred with GAO recommendations.
Some in the health care provider sector have raised concern about confusing definitions of the term “abuse,” pointing out that the CMS definition that applies to various types of providers differs from the definition in the Elder Justice Act of 2010, which requires nursing home reporting of certain types of incidents. As a result, while a nursing home would be obliged to report an incident under the Elder Justice Act, another type of health care provider may not be mandated to do so.
In fall 2019 another GAO report concerning abuse matters is due to be published. It is expected to compare federal abuse reporting requirements for nursing homes and assisted living residences.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether Congress or CMS will act soon to address issues raised by GAO.