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EDITORIAL: Nurses Aides Care for Our Elderly. Let’s Make Sure They’re Treated Fairly

The Star Ledger

Claire Wombough works the morning shift at a nursing home in Ocean County, a job for people with stout hearts, tender souls, and strong backs. She works the “dementia floor,” where there are 40 to 50 patients who need the kind of care you’d give to a newborn – feeding, dressing, bathing, healing, toileting, and emotional nurturing – and like any Certified Nursing Assistant, she measures success and failure by time.

“On a good day, we have 7 CNAs on a shift,” she explains. “On a bad day, just 5.”

The difference between 7 and 5 is measured with a basic human calculation: When the home is well-staffed, there is time to finish a feeding. To apply someone’s makeup. To listen to another story. To style a patient’s hair. “Or just make someone feel human,” she says.

CNAs are called the front line of the nursing industry, and that implies more than you would think: Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that nursing assistants are injured more than any other occupation – more than warehouse workers, truckers and stock clerks – so you aren’t surprised when Wombough mentions a spinal injury.

“A patient fell on top of me when I tried to catch him,” she said. “Anything can happen. Sometimes a dementia patient will bite you.”

The job is all about occupational hazards and chronic understaffing, and cries out for minimum staffing standards for nursing assistants. A bill that passed the state Senate last week does that – it mandates one CNA for 8 residents on the day shift, one for 10 in the evening, and one for 16 overnight – and we hope it clears the Assembly just as easily.

New Jersey has a respectable ranking for general nursing home care and is among the leaders in facilities and fewest complaints, according to Families for Better Care, a national watchdog group. But we rank 43rd in direct care staffing hours for each resident, earning a ‘F’ rating in that category in 2014.

The executive director for FBC, Brian Lee, put it this way: “Operators who shortchange residents by slashing staffing levels to (maximize) profits increase the likelihood of abuse and neglect of our loved ones and endanger their caregivers.”

“More staffing regularly translates to safer care, period.”

That FBC ranking is not an anomaly. More recently, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) ranked New Jersey 44th in staffing hours per patient.

Surely, this is not just a Jersey problem. In a recent analysis of new Medicare data, Kaiser Health News found that the average nursing home had one CNA caring for nine residents on its best-staffed days, and 16 residents on its worst days.

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