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Complaints About Nursing Home Evictions Rise, and Regulators Take Note

New York Times

By Tara Siegel Bernard and Robert Pear

Six weeks after Deborah Zwaschka-Blansfield had the lower half of her left leg amputated, she received some news from the nursing home where she was recovering: Her insurance would no longer pay, and it was time to move on.

The home wanted to release her to a homeless shelter or pay for a week in a motel.

“That is not safe for me,” said Ms. Zwaschka-Blansfield, 59, who cannot walk and had hoped to stay in the home, north of Sacramento, until she could do more things for herself — like getting up if she fell.

Her experience is becoming increasingly common among the 1.4 million nursing home residents across the country. Discharges and evictions have been the top-ranking category of grievances brought to state long-term care ombudsman programs, the ombudsman agencies say.

While nursing homes can discharge residents for a limited set of reasons, legal advocates say that home operators sometimes interpret those reasons in unjustified ways. Often, it’s because the residents’ more lucrative Medicare coverage is ending, which is what Ms. Zwaschka-Blansfield said happened in her case.

Many of the residents, unaware of their rights, leave without a challenge.

“The nursing homes, they know the system and they really game it to where they maximize their advantage,” said Tony Chicotel, a lawyer at California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, a nonprofit group.

Complaints about evictions have caught the attention of federal regulators, who are now seeking ways to step up enforcement of the federal laws that protect residents of the nation’s 15,000 nursing homes.

In December, federal regulators sent a memo to state officials across the country who inspect nursing homes for compliance with federal standards, saying they would begin examining discharges that appeared to violate the rules.

David R. Wright of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said in the memo that wrongful evictions were “of great concern” because they could be unsafe or traumatic for patients, uprooting them “from familiar settings” and moving them far from family and friends.

The number of complaints about the discharge and evictions of residents was rising through 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. That year, there were 9,192 complaints about the discharge and eviction of nursing home residents, out of a total of 140,145 complaints, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. But some legal advocates said they believed these figures understated the problem, since many residents do not contest their discharge.

Even as the Trump administration has said it is looking for ways to address improper evictions, it has scaled back the use of fines against nursing homes that harm individuals, in keeping with the administration’s broader deregulation push.

Mr. Chicotel, the advocacy group lawyer, said that the federal regulations governing nursing homes were already strong but that enforcement was weak. Even when nursing homes are cited for violations, he said, they frequently “get a modest fine, and it’s often a cost of doing business.”