HARRISBURG — Both federal and state databases on coronavirus outbreaks in nursing homes include inaccurate and misleading information at a time when the public is trying to desperately understand whether the state is making headway to contain the spread of the disease among the vulnerable elderly population, industry lobbyists and an advocate for the elderly say.
Nursing homes have been at the epicenter of the state’s coronavirus crisis — long-term care residents make up 20 percent of the COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania, but they account for more than 68 percent of the deaths.
More than 18,000 of the state’s total 92,000 coronavirus cases and 4,663 of the state’s 6,812 deaths have been among nursing home and long-term care facility residents.
Efforts by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the state Department of Health to provide the public with clear information about exactly which long-term facilities have been hit by coronavirus outbreaks have been stymied by inaccurate and confusing data, said Diane Menio, executive director of the Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly, based in Philadelphia.
“The whole point of transparency is to make information accessible,” she said. “If you don’t report it in a way that’s accessible, it’s confusing. It’s deceiving.”
It’s difficult to judge which provides better information, the state or the federal report, said Anne Henry, senior vice president and chief government affairs officer for LeadingAge PA, an organization representing non-profit long-term care facilities in Pennsylvania.
The state reporting system continues to be plagued by issues in which nursing home administrators think they’ve submitted information, only to have it not show up in the report. When the information does show up, it seems to be accurate, she said.
The problems entering information into the state’s system have resulted in glaring gaps in reporting on the state’s facility-level report.
A table of coronavirus cases by county on the Department of Health website and the department’s press releases indicate that there were more than 18,000 cases of coronavirus among nursing home residents.
The department’s report of coronavirus cases by county shows only 9,615 cases, with “no data” indicated for 211 nursing homes.
Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, said members of that organization have reported problems getting information into the state reporting system.
“At this point, we’ve been advising them to document, document, document” that they’ve submitted the data, he said.
April Hutcheson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health, said the agency is aware of the technical glitch that prevented some nursing homes from reporting data into the system this week.
She said state officials hope to have the problem corrected when the updated report is released next week.
But before this week’s report, there wasn’t a technical problem, she said. In prior weeks’ reports, if nursing homes weren’t included, it was because the nursing home didn’t submit the information or the administrator did it wrong, Hutcheson said.
Hutcheson said the state’s facility-level information is accurate, though it is based on data self-reported by the nursing homes.
Shamberg said that there have been complaints that the federal data “is off,” as well.
“We’re comparing between two databases that are filled with inaccuracies,” he said.
His organization has been lobbying for the state to ditch its own database and rely instead on the federal data to eliminate the need for nursing home administrators to submit duplicate data and too often have it reported incorrectly in both places.
Henry said that the federal report does provide more detail by having nursing homes report how many cases of coronavirus were identified in the last week, along with the running total of cases.
The state report only shows the number of cases, the nursing home has had since the pandemic began to hit the state back in March.
That doesn’t really present a complete picture because it doesn’t let the public know whether the nursing home had coronavirus early in the outbreak, but has gotten the situation under control, she said.
Hutcheson said the state’s reporting system asks for different information because the state launched its version before the The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services system was put in operation.
The state is working to make its reporting more comparable to the federal agency’s report, she said.
There are no plans to scrap the state reporting system now that the federal database is available, though.
“They are licensed by both of us, so it’s not uncommon that they’d have to file reports to both of us,” she said.