NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. (WIVB) — Joan Lorenzo has some memories of her mother’s stay at a New York nursing home that she wishes she could forget. The smell of urine in her mother’s room, and on Lorenzo’s clothes once she left, is one of them.
Lorenzo said her mom’s stay at Niagara Rehabilitation and Nursing Center started off strong, but that things began to go downhill over the summer. She said Carmella Valenti, who died last week, would on some days be “sitting in saturated urine.”
Her conclusion about the challenges nursing homes face? “Not enough staff, first of all,” Lorenzo said. “Don’t get me wrong! They do have some good caring people. I did let the administrator know that you do got some good people in here, but you got some people who are not taking care of the seniors.”
The administrator at Niagara Rehabilitation and Nursing Center declined to answer questions or be interviewed for this story. But the industry cannot deny the staffing crisis it is in, and it’s not getting better.
“Staffing is the most expensive component of expenses that go toward residents, and it’s also the easiest to frankly cheap out on,” said Richard Mollot, executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, a nonprofit that focuses on improving quality of care in the state’s more than 600 nursing homes.
According to an analysis of federal data performed by NEWS10’s sister station in Buffalo, New York nursing homes have historically ranked in the lower 10% to 20% in the nation for staffing some of the most critical positions. And the first quarter of this year was not any brighter for the industry.
Consider that nursing homes in the state ranked 35th in the nation for registered nurse total hours per day, per resident. This category includes registered nurses (RNs), RN administrators, and the RN director of nursing.
The ranking is even worse for total nursing staff hours. Nursing homes in the state ranked 46th in the nation for total nursing staff hours per day per resident. This includes RNs and their direct administrators, the RN director of nursing, licensed practical nurses, certified nursing assistants, and three other positions.
“Because there are not enough workers, the patients are not getting the proper care,” Lorenzo said. “That’s what’s very sad.”
A survey this year by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living found that nearly every nursing home is facing a workforce crisis. Fifty-nine percent of nursing homes are experiencing high levels of staffing shortages, the survey found.
The industry groups said more than 70% of the nursing homes said a lack of qualified candidates and unemployment benefits have been the two biggest obstacles in hiring new workers. As a result, many nursing home employees are working double shifts and overtime to fill the gaps.
“The survey demonstrates the severe workforce challenges long-term care providers are facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living. “Too many facilities are struggling to hire and retain staff that are needed to serve millions of vulnerable residents. Lawmakers across the country must prioritize long-term care and that begins with providing resources to address workforce challenges. When facilities have the means to offer competitive wages and training programs, workers will follow.”
The organizations have provided both state and federal lawmakers with their own proposals to increase staffing, but they have not been acted on. The proposals include increasing federal Medicaid funds to states so that they equal the cost of care, loan forgiveness for new graduates who want to work in the long-term care industry, and childcare assistance.
Christopher Laxton, executive director of the American Medical Directors Association—which represents medical directors, doctors, and some frontline workers in long-term care—said the industry’s staffing problem predates the pandemic. “Truthfully, nursing home staff are exhausted and demoralized,” Laxton said. “They’re demonized, the finger gets pointed at them, they’re not well trained, they’re not well compensated, they don’t really have opportunities for advancement, and they’re not well supervised.”
Mollot said that throwing more money at the industry isn’t the answer. Rather, nursing homes need to step it up and provide better wages and benefits, and stop paying administrators and nursing-home owners outsized salaries. “People come in, but they don’t stay,” he said. “If you improve the working conditions, if you improve the amount of staffing—where it’s not like ‘you know what’ is hitting the fan all the time—I think you’ll have a better situation for maintaining staff.”
The staffing crisis comes at a challenging time, with the pandemic and new state minimum staffing ratios for nursing homes going into effect next year. The state will also soon require nursing homes to spend at least 70% of their revenue toward direct resident care, with 40% of it toward staffing that cares for residents.
“I think they’ll solve it, because they’re mostly for profit,” Mollot said. “If the rules are enforced and they want to stay in business, then they’ll solve it.”