Florida regulators decided Friday they will abandon the use of software that allowed them to heavily redact key words from nursing home inspection reports posted online, choosing instead to link to the more complete reports available on a federal site.
“To avoid confusion for the nursing home reports, our agency links to the federal site, www.medicare.gov/nursinghomecompare,” said Mallory McManus, spokesperson for the Agency for Health Care Administration. “We no longer use the automated redaction tool.”
The decision came a day after the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau reported that the redaction software the agency started using last year was removing key words, dates and descriptions from the inspection reports posted online while the same reports posted on the federal website did not contain the heavy redactions.
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State law requires the agency to post the inspection reports on its website to aid the public in monitoring conditions at the 683 nursing homes and more than 3,100 assisted living facilities in the state. But by ending one transparency problem, the agency created another.
The redaction software was used retroactively to block words from inspection reports that went back seven years. Before last year, these documents were available to the public without the heavy redaction. Rather than restoring the documents to that format, the state on Friday linked to the federal documents, which go back only three years, resulting in less access for families, advocates and consumers who want to analyze a nursing home's track record.
McManus added, that because the ALF reports are not available on the federal Nursing Home Compare website, AHCA will continue to use an automated redaction tool for all ALF reports that are posted on its site.
“We will continue to refine this tool,’’ she said. “Members of the public can make a public records request and receive a manually/custom redacted version from the agency.” She added that “there is often no cost to the requestor.”
AHCA on Thursday defended the use of the tool as necessary to following the federal HIPAA rules, which shield sensitive health information from public disclosure. But it could not explain why the very same inspection reports, submitted by AHCA to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, were available to the public but without the words redacted.
Brian Lee, the head of a national watchdog group called Families for Better Care, called the agency move “a shell game.” He said that for more than a decade AHCA posted the state reports without the heavy redactions until they faced criticism. He said that linking to the federal website reduces redactions but now will increase delays.
“Many of these reports don’t always appear promptly on the federal website — especially if a nursing home lands on the watch list,” he said.
In addition to reducing the inspection reports from before 2014, AHCA’s actions also eliminate access to state violations, which are not posted on CMS’s website.
“If there’s anything we’ve learned from Irma, it is that consumers are demanding more accountability, not less,’’ Lee said.
Lee was also critical of the decision not to stop using the redaction tool for ALF reports.
“Why are they discriminating against ALF residents?” he asked. “Playing these games looks as though they’re putting the interests of providers above the welfare of the residents.”
AHCA, which regulates nursing homes and assisted living facilities, has been under increased scrutiny since Sept. 13, when eight residents of The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills died when power was lost to an air-conditioning system during Hurricane Irma. Three other residents have died since.
The tragedy is being investigated by the Hollywood Police Department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.