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Published: Saturday, 12/27/2008

Ratings to help elderly

THE federal government's new rating system to compare the nation's nearly 16,000 nursing homes is a welcome resource for those shopping for quality care of the elderly.

For the first time, consumers will have an easy way to check how nursing homes rate on the basis of state inspections, staffing levels, and quality-care measures such as the ratio of nursing staff to residents, how many patients developed bedsores, and the percentage of residents in restraints.

Medicare's five-star ratings, with five being the best, will be updated at least quarterly. The rankings have already stirred apprehension in the nursing home industry, which complains that the approach is far too simplistic for assessing a task as complex as caring for the elderly.

That may be so, but the format is a starting point for consumers. Federal officials hope the ratings will prompt "a national conversation about nursing home quality" and push care facilities that rate only one or two stars "on the path to improvement."

Nursing home groups question the validity of the rankings and argue that the data may be flawed or inaccurate, which could hurt some businesses with stellar reputations.

But any harm is outweighed by the likelihood that the ratings will generally help distinguish bad homes from good, especially in extreme cases. Then the public will benefit and businesses will be rewarded for providing quality service.

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