7Investigates: Nursing Home Shortages

Thousands of elderly and ailing people depend on nursing homes to keep them safe.

But, 7News has discovered that some Massachusetts nursing homes are so short-staffed, they’re breaking the law.

Digna Mendez’s family recently put her in a Boston-area nursing home.

But, her son-in-law-says, on the 81-year-old’s first day, her granddaughter tried buzzing a nurse from her grandmother’s room to ask a question about her medication.

“She’s on the call button for over an hour,” Anthony Coleman said.

Steve Tellier: “And no one answered.”

Coleman: “Nobody responded at all.”

“She had to get on her phone, call the front desk, and then somebody finally came around,” Coleman said.

Her family then put her in a different nursing home where they say they watched another elderly resident fall right in front of the nurses station.

“But it didn’t do no good because there was nobody on the floor,” Coleman said.

Steve Tellier: “How do you know no one was there.”

Coleman: “Because when the lady fell, my wife went to her aid. My wife was yelling for help for over 25 minutes for assistance, and nobody came.”

Tellier: “Do you think these nursing homes have enough staff.”

Coleman: “No. Absolutely not.”

Now, newly released federal data analyzed by 7News backs that up.

It shows about one in eight nursing homes in Massachusetts reported at least one day in a three-month period with no registered nurses on staff. That breaks federal law.

At nearly half, the number of residents per nurse doubled or more than doubled on poorly staffed days.

“Absolutely it can put lives at risk,” said Lori Smetanka, the head of a national advocacy group.

Smetanka says fewer staff means more mistakes.

“Staffing touches every component of the person’s life in terms of getting the care that they receive,” she said.

The president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association (MSCA), which represents nursing homes, admits nursing homes in our state can’t fill one in every seven jobs.

But the group blames the problem largely on a lack of funding for the state’s Medicaid program, which nursing homes rely on to pay for much of the care they provide.

The MSCA is urging the state to increase that funding and also says: “This federal data is further evidence of the urgency to immediately develop and implement a broad range of solutions that support both our workforce and residents.”

7News found both nursing homes Mendez stayed at saw wild ups and downs in day-to-day staffing.

For family members, it’s unacceptable.

“At the end of the day, this could be my mother,” Coleman said. “This could be your mother.”

The federal agency that oversees nursing homes tells 7News it’s now giving lower ratings on its website to nursing homes that break its staffing rules. It also plans to report the worst cases to state inspectors.

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