Our Opinion: Sense of urgency lacking on nursing homes

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Williamstown plays host to a top-ranked liberal arts college and a celebrated art institute, but one recognition the Village Beautiful would just as soon not receive is      that of being home to one of America's bottom-rung nursing home facilities in terms of quality of care (Eagle, Tuesday). On Feb. 21, the Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services (CMS), the federal agency that keeps a regulatory eye on nursing homes, placed Sweet Brook Rehabilitation and Nursing Center on its list of "special focus" facilities. There are only 90 such operations that share this dubious honor, and Sweet Brook is one of only two in Massachusetts on that list.

Reporting by Eagle staffer Haven Orecchio-Egresitz (Jan. 6) revealed that the facility has been under federal and state scrutiny since the summer of 2017 for violations including neglect and mistreatment — mental, physical and even financial — of patients by staff. Sweet Brook asserts that the issues have been addressed over the past 18 months.

Sweet Brook is licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and the CMS can use the withholding of Medicare and Medicaid payments from nursing facilities to give teeth to its regulations. It is not unusual for even above-average quality nursing homes to be cited for violations after annual inspections, and according to regulators the problems generally disappear once brought to the attention of the facilities. When an operation such as Sweet Brook displays a consistent and abiding pattern of violations, however, the fault for the continuance of this unacceptable state of affairs is not just with the violator, but also with the agencies charged with keeping it in line.

The special focus designation slapped on Sweet Brook means that it receives one extra annual inspection per year above the one normally slated, and when violations are found, it's given 24 months during which it is expected to correct them. A two-year period for an operation to come into compliance is satisfactory for certain applications, but when human health, dignity and lives are at stake such laxity is unacceptable.

According to the Long Term Care Community Coalition, an industry watchdog group, even after the 24-month threshold has been passed, many violators aren't kicked off the Medicare or Medicaid programs, and often some get dropped only to be reinstated later. As it stands, Sweet Brook has already had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines in the past year-and-a-half for violating state and federal nursing home regulations, but state Rep. John Barrett III asserts they continue and are being covered up because of "fear of retribution."

If Sweet Brook has indeed addressed all of the problems that earned it such harsh criticism by the CMS it will find itself back in the good graces of the organization soon enough. But administrators, who don't deny the CMS' findings, should explain how the facility was allowed to decline to such a state and specify what changes were made to bring the nursing home up to standard. Only by doing so can Sweet Brook regain the confidence of patients, families and the larger community. Going forward, all parties should demand that the commonwealth and the federal government do their supervisory jobs with a sense of urgency that has to this point been absent. Serious problems must be addressed quickly, not within a leisurely 24-month time frame.

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