State admits to slow pace in addressing nursing home complaints

Georgia is dealing with a large backlog of complaints about nursing homes, and also has a substantial vacancy rate in surveyors who check conditions in these facilities, a state health agency said Tuesday.

The complaint situation has helped lead to “a mess’’ with federal health officials, Frank Berry, commissioner of the Department of Community Health, told Georgia House lawmakers at a hearing.


The nursing home complaints could range from a missing guardrail to a problem with the quality of care, Berry told reporters after a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on health.

Community Health is prioritizing the complaints, while hiring new surveyors to fill the vacancies, agency officials said.

Berry is the newly appointed commissioner of Community Health, which houses the state’s Medicaid and PeachCare insurance programs, as well as the state employee and teacher health plan. It provides health care services to one in four Georgians.

The new commissioner, like his counterparts in other states, is likely to confront a whirlwind of changes involving Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans in Congress, along with President-elect Donald Trump, have pledged to repeal the ACA. Many have also called for turning Medicaid into a block grant program, which would give states more flexibility in running it.

Berry told the state lawmakers, “We’re waiting to see what happens at the federal level and what trickles down’’ to the states.

States that have already expanded Medicaid under the ACA, something Georgia has not done, face bigger challenges ahead, he told reporters.

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and state officials are discussing other issues besides the nursing home situation, Berry said.


He added that he believes the feds are waiting for Georgia to deal with those matters before they approve the state’s proposed rate increases for providers of services for people with disabilities.

Tony Marshall, president and CEO of the Georgia Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, said in a statement Tuesday that the organization supports the state’s efforts “to conduct timely and comprehensive surveys.’’

“Skilled nursing care centers are a highly regulated setting, and providers are accustomed to unannounced standard surveys to evaluate compliance with a multitude of requirements,’’ Marshall said. “We are proud that the majority of Georgia’s skilled nursing center residents and their families, greater than 90 percent, are satisfied with the care that is being provided and would recommend their center for care. While GHCA members seek to internally resolve complaints or issues as they arise, we appreciate the availability of an external process to assist residents, families and providers.”

Community Health also said Tuesday that an internal audit of the agency has revealed personnel issues that need to be addressed. And efficiency and accountability must be improved throughout Community Health, Berry said.

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Berry, the former commissioner of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, succeeded Clyde Reese as Community Health chief. Reese is now a judge on the Georgia Court of Appeals.