Rating nursing homes

A new federal rating system for nursing homes should not be the only criteria prospective residents and their families use to gauge the quality of a home. But it does offer one way to compare homes in making this important decision.

The new system was introduced Dec. 23. It uses results of annual surveys and inspections, nurse staffing and other information to rate homes on a five-star system.

A five-star rating means the home is "much above average" in the program, while two stars means "below average" and a one-star rating means "much below average." While the information that determines the ranking has been collected by the government for several years, it hasn't been used until now to compile ratings the public can examine.

Consumers can find the ratings online at cms.gov -- the Web site for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services -- where they can search for homes by several different methods. For example, the site will show information on homes within a certain radius of a zip code. Consumers also can find information simply by listing the name of the nursing home.

We can understand why some nursing homes would object to the ranking system. For example, the dedication, friendliness and personal involvement of nurses and other staff is hard to measure on an objective scale.

Nursing homes that accept patients on Medicaid, the national medical insurance program for low-income and disabled people, might also be at a disadvantage. Medicaid does not cover all of the expenses involved in resident care, which could affect the overall ability of the home to provide top-rate care.

But the rating system does offer useful information about how homes fare in health inspections, how many nurses are on staff and the number of hours they are on duty. Other measurements include the percentage of residents with bed sores, the percentage of residents who lose too much weight while in the home, and even the quality of food served.

Federal officials concede that some bugs must be worked out of the system to ensure that consumers receive the most accurate information available. But they say the ratings provide one more yardstick that can only lead to better decision-making.

While members of the residential care industry may chafe at these ratings, we think those facing this difficult decision should welcome them.