CMS data, riddled with errors, gives little clarity on COVID-19 in Virginia’s nursing homes

CMS data, riddled with errors, gives little clarity on COVID-19 in Virginia’s nursing homes
Virginia National Guard soldiers and airmen collected samples for COVID-19 testing at a long-term care facility April 28, 2020. (Source: U.S. National Guard photo by Cotton Puryear)

The data was hotly anticipated.

But less than 24 hours after the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services released the names of nursing homes with COVID-19 cases, it became clear there were problems.

Case numbers for Virginia showed a sharp discrepancy with data from the state’s Department of Health. The dataset showed no information for 29 facilities. And one of the worst-ranked nursing homes in Virginia for COVID-19 deaths — a county-owned facility with a four-star rating from CMS — said the agency made a grave error in reporting.

According to the CMS database, Bedford County Nursing Home had experienced a total of 90 coronavirus deaths — a fatality for each of the facility’s certified beds. But in a statement issued hours after the agency’s data release, administrator Paul Poff assured families and residents that Bedford had no confirmed cases of coronavirus, and certainly no deaths.

“We have double checked our reporting and have verified it was reported correctly on our end,” Poff added in an email to the Mercury on June 5. “I am unsure why this data is wrong. We are hoping the next CMS update will reflect our accurate information.”

Without consistent federal data, families, residents and advocates for Virginia’s 287 licensed nursing homes to remain largely in the dark about a pandemic that’s had an outsized effect on some of the state’s most vulnerable residents. Virginia health officials have repeatedly declined to release the names of nursing homes with COVID-19, citing a section of state code that defines corporations as “persons” with confidentiality rights.

Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver confirmed Tuesday that VDH was unlikely to budge on its position. “At this time, we are not reconsidering that policy,” he said at a news briefing, pointing out that CMS was scheduled to release its own information in the near future.

But even before the agency released the new dataset on Thursday afternoon, CMS officials acknowledged there were likely to be discrepancies. Some come down to reporting. VDH, for instance, reports the total number of COVID-19 cases at long-term care facilities, a category that includes nursing homes and assisted living centers. By the department’s reporting metrics, Virginia has had 5,183 cases of the virus at senior living facilities. CMS data, which only includes nursing homes, lists a total of 1,443.

It’s unlikely that federal data provides a comprehensive view of the total number of cases within Virginia’s nursing homes. Twenty-nine facilities across the state do not have data registered with CMS, an issue the agency says it’s working to rectify. In a conference call on Thursday, officials also acknowledged that CMS withheld three percent of the data as the agency works to resolve reporting issues with specific nursing homes.

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