* Hannah Meisel…
In the early days, weeks and months of the pandemic, COVID-19 ravaged nursing homes, killing thousands of elderly and frail residents and forcing the isolation of thousands more.
Though long-term care facilities statewide locked down, forbidding outside visits from family members, staff from the Illinois Department of Public Health charged with investigating complaints of abuse and neglect should still have been going in to those facilities.
But for the first three and a half months of the pandemic, they weren’t. Pritzker’s administration admitted to that error last summer after severing ties with two IDPH officials and catching up on the 272 missed abuse and neglect complaints, substantiating 17 of them. The agency hired a former federal prosecutor to review the unsubstantiated claims.
“Our top priority as a regulator of long-term care facilities in Illinois is ensuring vulnerable Illinoisans are kept safe by those responsible for their care,” IDPH Director Ngozi Ezike said in a course-correcting news release last August. “Anything short of that is unacceptable, and our entire department is committed to getting this right as we move forward.”
In service of that goal, IDPH also paid $425,000 to an outside firm to examine what went wrong inside the agency and how its processes could be improved to prevent such a major dereliction of duty from happening again.
More than 13 months later, however, the report remains unpublished, though it’s been complete since Nov. 30, 2020. A copy obtained by NPR Illinois shows the outside review was critical of IDPH, its Bureau of Long Term Care and the Office of Health Care Regulation directly responsible for investigating nursing home abuse and neglect complaints.
But as Pritzker and some Democrats in the General Assembly attempt to overhaul how the state reimburses nursing homes with Medicaid patients — a move they say will engender more accountability and equity — the report paints a complicated picture that neither fully bolsters Pritzker’s argument for an overhaul nor the resistance from the nursing home industry warning its cash-poor facilities will close en masse.
According to the national Staff Time and Resource Intensity Verification, or STRIVE Project, Illinois accounts for 47 of the 100 most understaffed facilities in the nation when comparing actual staffing levels against their target levels within STRIVE.
The persistent staffing issue is at the heart of Pritzker’s proposed overhaul to how the state pays nursing homes; the Department of Healthcare and Family Services wants to increase nursing home reimbursement rates, but have those increases tied to a facility’s staffing levels and other safety improvements.
But Manatt’s consultants found IDPH has long had the power — and has actually been obligated by state law — to enforce skilled nursing facility staffing ratio requirements, but hasn’t.