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Montana Faces A Backlog Of Nursing Home Health And Safety Surveys

Montana faces a backlog of nursing home health and safety surveys. Montana is one of the 50 states that saw surveys pile up during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A spokesperson with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services says the state is more than halfway through a backlog of surveys that check on health and safety conditions at all 70 nursing homes.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services requires states to conduct the surveys every year and a half to ensure facilities are keeping up with federal standards of care. The federal government put a pause on requiring these reports in March 2020 and directed states to instead conduct focused COVID-19 infection surveys and respond to complaints.

CMS restarted the program in August later that year for states with the resources available. Montana resumed its normal survey process this March according to Montana DPHHS.

Attorney Eric Carlson with California advocacy group Justice in Aging was part of an independent group that advised the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on its COVID-19 nursing home protocol and says these recertification inspections do more than confirm nursing homes meet federal standards.

“The survey process is essential for maintaining quality of care and protecting residents and residents’ interests. The absence of surveys during that period of time took away a lot of the safeguards that otherwise exist,” Carlson says.

A July report from the federal health agency shows states’ backlog of standard recertification surveys grew from 8% in summer 2020 to more than 70% in summer 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Montana’s state health department Inspector General Carter Anderson says the agency was up to date on its nursing home surveys heading into the pandemic, but fell behind when COVID hit.

Terry Fulmer, president of philanthropic elder care organization The John A. Hartford Foundation and another member of the CMS advisory group, says lack of resources is a contributing factor to the system pile up nationwide.

“We’ve seen variability in the backlog due to lack of staffing, lack of appropriate trained surveyors,” Fulmer says.

Montana state health department Inspector General Carter Anderson says staffing is not a problem in Montana. He says months before COVID-19 hit, the state increased pay for surveyors and tapped into local employment so that surveyors could live near the rural nursing homes.

“We kinda had a plan already in place because we had recently done that over the last couple of years,” Anderson says.

Anderson says he expects the state to complete recertification surveys of all 70 nursing homes by February 2022.

Copyright 2021 Yellowstone Public Radio. To see more, visit Yellowstone Public Radio.

Kayla Desroches reports for Yellowstone Public Radio in Billings. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and stayed in the city for college, where she hosted a radio show that featured serialized dramas like the Shadow and Suspense. In her pathway to full employment, she interned at WNYC in New York City and KTOO in Juneau, Alaska. She then spent a few years on the island of Kodiak, Alaska, where she transitioned from reporter to news director before moving to Montana.