Some nursing homes are facing tougher penalties, including the loss of federal funding. In an effort to increase quality of care in nursing homes, the Biden administration implemented revisions to the Special Focus Facility (“SFF”) program, which targets the “worst” nursing homes in each State. Nursing homes are selected for the program by the “single State agency” using a point system based on the number and severity of deficiencies cited during their past 3 inspections.
CMS released a revised SFF Program policy memo QS0-23-01-NH and these revisions are meant to increase: (A) the requirements for “graduation” of the SFF program; and (B) the enforcement for facilities that do not demonstrate improvement. A high-level overview of key changes made in the revised memo are as follows:
- Staffing levels is a consideration for SFF selection: CMS has directed states to consider a facility’s staffing level when selecting facilities for the SFF program. CMS recommends if a State is considering two candidates with a similar compliance history, it should select the facility with lower staffing ratios/rating as the SFF.
- Criteria for Graduation of the Program Escalated: CMS has added a threshold that prevents a facility from exiting based on the total number of deficiencies cited. To graduate from the program, facilities must complete two consecutive standard health surveys, with no intervening complaint, LSC, or EP surveys with 13 or more total deficiencies, or any deficiencies cited at scope and severity of “F” or higher.
- Involuntary Termination Enforced: SFFs with deficiencies cited at immediate Jeopardy (“IJ”) on any two surveys (standard health, complaint, LSC, or EP) while in the SFF program, will now be considered for discretionary termination.
- Enforcement Actions Increased: CMS will impose immediate sanctions on an SFF that fails to achieve and maintain significant improvement in correcting deficiencies on the first and each subsequent standard health, complaint and LSC/EP survey after a facility becomes an SFF. Enforcement sanctions will be of increasing severity for SFFs demonstrating continued noncompliance and failure to demonstrate good faith efforts to improve performance.
- Sustainable Improvements Incentivized: CMS will closely monitor graduates from the SFF program for a period of three years to ensure improvements are sustained. For SFFs that graduate but continue to demonstrate poor compliance identified on any survey (e.g., actual harm, substandard quality of care, or IJ deficiencies), CMS may use its authority to impose enhanced enforcement options, up to, and including discretionary termination from the Medicare and/or Medicaid programs.
It is imperative to note that your past alleged violations will work against you. This means that if you are cited with a deficiency, it is of the utmost importance, if you disagree with the assessment, to appeal the alleged deficiency. If you merely pay the penalty and roll over like an old dog, your lack of appealing can aid toward your demise. You are basically being held to a giant, bell curve against the other nursing homes in your State.
Once in the SFF program, nursing homes are inspected at least every six months rather than annually. State inspectors apply progressive enforcement—penalties, fines, withholding of payments—until the facilities significantly improve or are terminated from Medicaid and/or Medicare.
Nationally, 88 nursing homes participate in the SFF program, about 0.5% of all nursing homes. It is mandatory if chosen.
The facilities with the most points in a state then become candidates for the SFF program. The number of nursing homes on the candidate list is based on five candidates for each SFF slot, with a minimum candidate pool of five nursing homes and a maximum of 30 per State. State Agencies (“SAs”) use this list to select nursing homes to fill the SFF slot(s) in their State. Additionally, since a facility’s staffing (staffing levels and turnover) is very important to residents’ care, CMS recommends that SAs consider a facility’s staffing information when selecting SFFs from the SFF candidate list. See the list of current candidates in Table D, current as of December 7, 2022. For example, NC has 10 facilities on the proposed list for participation in the SFF program. Each State is allotted a number of SFFs the State may allot. See below.
Once a State selects a facility as an SFF, the SA, on CMS’s behalf, conducts a full, onsite inspection of all Medicare health and safety requirements every six months, and recommends progressive enforcement (e.g., civil money penalty, denial of Medicare payment, etc.) until the nursing home either: (1) graduates from the SFF program; or (2) is terminated from the Medicare and/or Medicaid program(s). While in the SFF program, CMS expects facilities to take meaningful actions to address the underlying and systemic issues leading to poor quality.
Once an SFF graduates or is terminated, each SA then selects a new SFF from a monthly list of candidates. CMS also informs candidate nursing homes of their inclusion on the SFF candidate list in the monthly preview of the Five-Star Quality Rating System. The facility will graduate from the SFF program once it has had two consecutive standard health surveys with 12 or fewer deficiencies cited at S/S of “E” or less on each survey (these surveys must have occurred after the facility has been selected as an SFF). To avoid situations where a facility remains an SFF for a prolonged period of time, CMS is establishing criteria that could result in the facility’s termination from the Medicare and/or Medicaid programs. SFFs with deficiencies cited at Immediate Jeopardy on any two surveys while in the SFF program, will be considered for discretionary termination.
While the initial SFF designation is not appealable, the facility does have some appeal rights. Federal regulations allow for dispute resolution and to appeal a finding of noncompliance determined under an SFF survey that results in an enforcement remedy.
If you find yourself on the SFF list, you must hire a lawyer with expertise. Your lawyer should be able to help you “graduate” from the SFF list without termination or closure. Your lawyer can help negotiate Systems Improvement Agreements (“SIAs”) with SAs and CMS to provide additional time for nursing homes to improve their internal systems and the quality of care they provide.