In the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union, Matt Drange’s investigation is titled “Home health care in crisis.” Having read the piece, I can say it’s safe to take that declaration at face value. At the very time that home care is booming in New York as a cheaper, more convenient alternative to nursing homes, the state has cut back on its number of health inspectors. Meanwhile, the complexity of home care cases is rising, as hospitals release patients earlier and the population as a whole ages. The results, Drange writes, have been predictable.
Lapses have gone undetected or, in many cases, unpunished by the Department of Health, the arm of state government tasked with overseeing home health agencies. Providers are not required to notify the department when patients experience sudden or unexpected changes in their condition, including death. And even when the state does learn about these incidents, it doesn’t always act on the information, records show.
For the investigation, Drange looked at public records regarding Medicaid billing, home care agency registration and plenty of state inspection reports. He focused his review on 40 of the worst offenders, and found more than enough examples to illustrate a system in crisis. Drange’s anecdotes recount numerous egregious lapses in care, and I strongly recommend digging into the meat of the piece, if only to see what incredible detail he found in public records. For now though, at the risk of mild spoilers, I’ll just reveal that they all end in the same way: The problem goes undetected, unenforced, or underpunished.
In the end, as reporters have found in other states as well, the root of the problem seems to be a weak and vaguely defined regulatory system. In his investigation, for example, Drange found a sharp contrast between the oversight of nursing homes and home care, two institutions which often perform similar functions.
(Researcher Sam Krinsky of the United Healthcare Workers East 1199 Union) said the culture of home care differs vastly from that of nursing homes, which have received more attention in New York and elsewhere.
Statements of deficiencies issued to home care agencies by the Department of Health are “not something that we take seriously,” Krinsky said.
“In nursing homes, the inspections are a big deal. There are a lot more regulations they have to comply with … It’s just a much more robust system,” he said. “In home care, it’s more of a review of paperwork. It [Department of Health] doesn’t have any teeth.”
Your thoughts on this story?
Drange, an AHCJ member and recent graduate of the Columbia Journalism School, did this investigation as his master’s project. He invites feedback from other health care reporters about the story and anything he could have done differently. Feel free to comment below or send your thoughts to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter (@mattdrange).