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Searching for a senior home? A new tool helps Minnesotans screen out unsafe providers

Elder Voice's Scott Zerby was instrumental to making our dream a reality!

By CHRIS SERRES , STAR TRIBUNE November 30, 2022 - 7:03 PM

Starting this week, Minnesotans can do something that was previously impossible: Look up the health and safety record of every licensed senior care provider in the state on a single website.

An elder advocacy group launched an online tool, called Elder Care IQ, that provides access to state inspection reports for 2,000 nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and home health agencies across Minnesota. The tool can help people identify providers that have a history of abuse and neglect of residents, as well as those that received a clean bill of health from state inspectors.

The tool contains a rich trove of state health records, and it fills a gap in the hodgepodge of websites designed to help people navigate the emotionally exhausting process of choosing a suitable and safe senior home for a loved one.

It also comes amid a persistent workforce crisis that is affecting the availability and quality of care for older Minnesotans.

As providers struggle to fill thousands of vacant positions, access to services has eroded across the state, particularly for people released from hospitals. In October alone, older Minnesotans were turned away 11,000 times from nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, according to a survey by the state's two primary long-term care industry groups. Nearly two-thirds of the state's nursing homes have waiting lists and many have placed holds on new admissions, according to the survey.

Oftentimes families have to make decisions on placing their loved ones in a facility in the stressful aftermath of a debilitating medical emergency. Sometimes they have just days or hours to decide, and families are pressured to accept recommendations by discharging hospitals, elder care advocates say.

"It's especially important now, coming out of the pandemic and amid these staffing shortages, that people have reliable, up-to-date information on quality of care," said Kristine Sundberg, executive director of Elder Voice Advocates, which created the new tool in collaboration with the state Department of Health. "Now people can identify the good providers and see how badly the bad ones are operating."

Despite a plethora of senior care websites that have emerged over the past two decades, information on the safety of providers is still difficult to locate. The state Department of Health posts inspection reports on its website, including those that substantiate complaints of abuse and neglect. But the site can be cumbersome to navigate for those who aren't tech-savvy.

The state also maintains the Nursing Home Report Card, which enables users to compare nursing homes in Minnesota based on eight quality of care measures. A nursing home can receive one to five stars for each quality measure. However, the site does not contain inspection reports; nor does it contain information on assisted-living facilities, which have roughly twice as many residents as Minnesota nursing homes.

"There is a lot of good information out there, about key aspects of quality of care in nursing homes, but it's all in different places and very hard to find," said Joseph Gaugler, a professor who focuses on long-term care and aging at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health. "Ultimately, compiling all these investigative reports in a single site … is an exciting development and much-needed public service."

The idea for Elder Care IQ was born several years ago out of frustration.

In 2017, a grass-roots coalition of victims of elder abuse and their relatives began pushing for greater transparency of maltreatment reports. The coalition, now known as Elder Voice Advocates, began combing through state records and chronicling hundreds of preventable deaths in senior homes. They descended on the state Capitol with boxes full of state maltreatment reports – to combat the perception that abuse and neglect occurs only in a small number of facilities.

As its campaign intensified, Elder Voice was inundated with requests from families seeking information on senior homes. Jean Peters, a registered nurse and one of the nonprofit's founders, recalled receiving a four-page manual from the Department of Health on how to navigate the website of the agency's office that investigates and compiles maltreatment complaints. The agency has since worked to improve the website.

After nearly a year of data gathering, a group of Elder Voice volunteers unveiled the new web-based tool Tuesday. It contains an interactive map that allows users to zero in on any elder care provider licensed in Minnesota. With a click, any state investigative reports of abuse, neglect or exploitation pop up. The site contains nearly 8,500 maltreatment reports completed over the past decade.

A quick search of Elder Care IQ revealed that at least three Twin Cities-area nursing homes have 40 or more substantiated complaints of abuse, neglect or financial exploitation. Nearly 40 providers across the state have more than a dozen substantiated findings. One nursing home, North Ridge Health and Rehab in New Hope, has been the subject of more than 230 maltreatment investigations since 2017, according to the site. North Ridge is the largest long-term care facility in the state and was the site of one of Minnesota's deadliest outbreaks of COVID-19.

The tool provides access to the inspection reports for users to interpret, without evaluating them or providing quality-of-care ratings.

"This is not about punishing people. It's about transparency," Sundberg said. "We also hope that by publicly exposing the serious problems with far too many providers, that this will be a motivator for the poor ones to improve."

Kari Shaw said she wished the tool had been available two years ago, when she and her sisters were scrambling to find an assisted-living facility for their 86-year-old mother. The family had just over two weeks to make a decision after their mother suffered a serious fall and was being released from a transitional care facility.

At the time, Shaw recalled feeling like she was casting about in an informational void. She recalls sending dozens of text messages to friends, and scouring reviews of senior homes on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor. She visited one senior home at the suggestion of a friend, only to discover that the building was dilapidated and smelled like urine, she said.

"Choosing a senior home for your parent is one of the hardest decisions you will ever make," said Shaw, who lives in San Diego. "You are placing your blood relative's life in the trusted hands of strangers, and you need all the support you can get."


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