Last summer, Theo Francis, then working for The Wall Street Journal, wrote a compelling report about a disturbing trend in which nursing homes are evicting residents, sometimes because these people are simply too costly or inconvenient. His story noted that residents on Medicaid bring facilities as little as half what they can get from people who pay out of pocket, with private health insurance or through Medicare. Meanwhile, he wrote, formal complaints about nursing-home discharge practices have doubled over a decade, to 8,500 nationally in 2006.
The story has earned Francis, who is an AHCJ member, the Jack Newfield Award for Excellence in Investigative Reporting from FRIA, a New York-based, nonprofit organization that tries to foster dignity and independence of seniors in long term care settings. The goal of the award is to encourage socially conscious reporting on the challenges of elderly life, in general, and especially those related to long-term care. FRIA hopes the award provides incentives to journalists to report on issues important to the nation’s aging population.
“No one tracks nursing-home evictions nationally, and even complaints are tracked inconsistently. Few states go farther,” Francis writes us. “So it took a lot of phone work to confirm and flesh out the pattern of evictions that I had heard about. Moreover, many of those who have been evicted are unaware of their rights under federal law, and may never know they were forced out of their homes improperly. Others are afraid to complain, fearing they may retaliation when they depend on their nursing homes to eat, bathe or use the toilet. And assisted-living facility residents, while more independent, have more to fear in some ways. In many states, they can be evicted for no reason at all. As a result, it was also challenging to find residents and families both able to articulate their experiences and willing to do so publicly.
“As news organizations cut back, investigative reporting is often one of the early casualties. Even so, I want to encourage other reporters to write about nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and their residents, many of whom are among the most vulnerable people in America today. Writing about long-term care can be a real challenge, thanks in part to a byzantine regulatory system, the incredibly decentralized nature of the industry an the anxieties that often surround those living in institutional settings. But it is also incredibly rewarding. For one thing, you meet people who’ve lived long and colorful lives. But beyond that, there are few opportunities for reporters to make more of a concrete difference in their communities and in the lives of individuals.”