The nation’s top Medicare official took to Twitter to respond to a mainstream news report critical of the federal government’s handling of the first major COVID-19 outbreak at a skilled nursing facility.
“60 Minutes” this past Sunday profiled that outbreak — which devastated a Life Care Centers of America facility in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, Wash. — and framed the subsequent investigation of the facility by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) as one of many hurdles to effectively responding to the outbreak.
The administrator of the agency, Seema Verma, pushed back on that characterization on Twitter the night the segment aired, arguing that CMS’s investigation into the Life Care Center of Kirkland was “absolutely critical in helping us understand how the virus affected nursing homes, & it informed our next steps as we considered how to inspect other facilities.”
The move was also “critical to ensure Life Care residents’ safety,” Verma wrote.
CBS, which airs the venerable Sunday night newsmagazine, asserted in the segment that Verma declined multiple requests for an on-camera interview; Verma said on Twitter that the agency “spent over an hour w/ 60 Minutes to explain the federal response in Kirkland.”
According to the 60 Minutes segment, Nancy Butner, a vice president at Life Care Centers of America, wrote to the Department of Health and Human Services saying “we will agree to whatever it takes to receive federal assistance. Simply stated, we are desperate for licensed nurses and nursing assistants.”
A strike team of staff took five days to arrive, bus CMS investigators arrived before that, “60 Minutes” reported — even though state health officials urged Washington’s governor to get the inspection put off until after the immediate crisis. Life Care Centers of America said the “federal inspectors interviewed employees and demanded thousands of documents, diverting more than 400 hours of staff time away from patient care.”
“I think they wanted a scapegoat for what happened at Life Care Center Kirkland,” Butner said on the 60 Minutes segment. “I think that they wanted someone to blame for COVID-19 spreading.”
On Twitter, Verma disagreed strongly with this argument.
“Let’s remember that Life Care is not just Kirkland. It is a huge, multibillion dollar corporation w/ tens of thousands of staff. Important question
@60Minutes didn’t ask is: Why didn’t Life Care deploy its massive corporate resources more quickly?” Verma wrote on Twitter. “Despite their multibillion dollar footprint, Life Care failed to divert corporate resources toward facilities in crisis like in Kirkland, and are now looking to shift the blame to federal regulators.”
Life Care was ultimately fined $611,000 by CMS, and state inspectors who worked in partnership with federal investigators to file their own report on the outbreak, agreed with CMS that “serious mistakes” at the facility led to deaths “60 Minutes” reported.
Life Care appealed both the federal and state actions, and a judge in the state case sided with the facility, concluding the outbreak did not stem from negligence.
Verma on Twitter argued that Life Care Corporation “has a checkered track record of quality” across multiple tweets.
“In 2019, the chain’s facilities had an average fine level of over $8,000 per facility — a total of $1.69 million,” she wrote. “This increased to $1.83 million this year. It’s worth noting that, while Kirkland Life Care performed well in some areas, the nursing home’s inspection rating on Nursing Home Compare is only 3/5 stars. This is largely because of infection control problems dating back to 2019, for which @CMSGov fined the facility over $40,000. It was Life Care’s responsibility to remedy these problems and protect its residents.”