After Ant-Bite Scandal, Federal Watchdog to Review VA's Nursing Home Ratings System

Atlanta VA Medical Center (Department of Veterans Affairs)
Atlanta VA Medical Center (Department of Veterans Affairs)

Days after news broke of a veteran who suffered hundreds of ant bites as he lay dying in a Department of Veterans Affairs-run nursing home, the Government Accountability Office announced it will review the ratings system the department uses to assess its community living centers.

In a letter sent to three Senate Democrats on Sept. 17, Orice Williams Brown, the GAO's managing director for congressional relations, said the office will begin work on the project early next year.

The review comes in response to a request from the lawmakers, Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, for the office to look into the VA's star ratings system, first published in mid-2018.

The VA released the ratings of its community living centers, or CLCs, following an investigation by USA Today and the Boston Globe that found its rating system, initially developed for internal use only, showed 60 VA nursing homes, or nearly half the 133 homes in 2017, received a one-star rating, the lowest on a five-star scale.

Related: Nine VA Leaders, Staff Placed on Leave Amid Ant-Bite Scandal

By the time the VA released its updated star ratings in 2018, 8% of its nursing homes had a one-star rating and 26% had a five-star rating.

The senators said they want the GAO to review the system based on reports of poor quality ratings and "disturbing anecdotal stories of substandard treatment and conditions at some CLCs across the country."

"We appreciate that many community living centers care for a disproportionately complex resident population with multiple chronic and difficult conditions," they said. "But public concerns and reporting underscore the need to ensure CLCs have the tools, resources and properly trained staff necessary to provide the quality nursing home care our veterans need and deserve."

Related: More Vets Will Be Headed to Nursing Homes, and VA May Not Be Ready: Report

The investigation follows a shake-up at the Atlanta VA Health Care System, where an Air Force veteran residing at the VA-run Eagles' Nest Community Living Center suffered hundreds of ant bites as the result of an infestation in his room.

Nine staff members, including the VA's top executive in the region, have been reassigned or placed on administrative leave while the VA investigates the incident, involving veteran Joel Marrable, and the staff's response.

Marrable died Sept. 14 following a battle with cancer.

The senators asked the GAO to look into how the VA developed its rating system, what inputs it uses to develop the ratings and how it ensures that they are accurate.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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