WASHINGTON The U.S. has five-star rankings for restaurants and hotels. So why not five-star rankings for nursing homes?
The Bush administration announced Wednesday that it will put in place such a rating system by the end of the year. It's designed to give consumers another tool to consider when shopping for a nursing home. The ratings would be placed on a government Web site.
"The fact a home has a lower rating will likely put them on the path to improvement," said Kerry Weems, acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. "I don't think we're going to see many people who are very anxious to put a loved one in a one-star home."
The agency said it would seek comment from the industry and consumers to determine the criteria for the rankings.
In announcing their intentions, federal officials also unveiled new regulations that will require all nursing homes to have in place sprinkler systems by 2013. Homes that fail to have the sprinkler systems could not serve Medicare participants.
Newer nursing homes all have sprinkler systems, but many older homes do not. Overall, the government estimates that about one out of every 11 nursing homes don't have sprinkler systems. Still others only have partial sprinkler systems and will have to make improvements. Overall, there are about 16,000 nursing homes in the United States.
In 2004, the Government Accountability Office recommended that federal health officials explore requiring sprinklers in all nursing homes. The recommendation came one year after 31 residents died in nursing home fires in Hartford, Conn., and Nashville, Tenn.
Federal regulations did not require either home to have automatic sprinklers, and both fires broke out at night when staffing was at its lowest level.
There has never been a multiple-death fire in a nursing home with a full sprinkler system, government auditors said.
The five-year window for putting in place a sprinkler system was designed to give nursing homes time to plan and finance the undertaking, but they shouldn't expect federal loans or grants to help pay for it. The estimated cost of the improvements over five years amounts to about $850 million.
"Nursing homes finance improvements to their physical plant all the time. This is the kind of improvement they need to keep residents safe, so we don't contemplate specific grants for nursing homes who are not in compliance with the rule," Weems said.