‘Punitive’ Federal Mandate Hurts An Already Fragile Public Trust in Nursing Homes

The Biden administration’s vaccine mandate has dug a deeper hole for the nursing home industry, which has been trying to rebuild its reputation after a year and a half of negative press tied to the pandemic.

Targeting the industry has worn away at already dwindling trust, especially for prospective residents and their families.

“All the consumer and the public sees is [skilled nursing facilities] had to be told to do it,” said Erin Shvetzoff Hennessey, CEO of Health Dimensions Group, during Skilled Nursing News’ RETHINK conference last week. “It makes it look like we can’t make our own decisions or make the right decisions.”


Shvetzoff Hennessey expressed disappointment that the federal government, which she feels should be the industry’s “biggest advocate,” is singling out skilled nursing.

“They’re our main source of funding, and the initial response and actually the ongoing response has been rather punitive,” added Shvetzoff Hennessey. “It sends a very, very bad message.”

Minneapolis, Minn.-based Health Dimensions Group offers consulting and management services to post-acute, long-term care and senior living providers in all 50 states, and operates 30 health care properties in seven states.


Ari Lev, chief marketing officer for Villa Healthcare and another speaker at RETHINK, views the mandate as an opportunity — with the right strategy. It’s a way to show the public the industry’s dedication to protecting its residents, even in the middle of a staffing crisis, he said.

“My wife always tells me it’s not what I say, but how I say it … I think there’s a lot of truth to that with the vaccine mandate,” said Lev. “We got to protect our staff, full stop, that never goes away and that is the core of what we do. But we have to be strategic. We have to be all-inclusive, we cannot be isolated.”

Villa Healthcare, based in Lincolnwood, Ill., operates 34 skilled nursing facilities across five states.

Perception Dissonance

Shvetzoff Hennessey sees wildly different public perceptions of the industry, usually with actual residents and their families publicizing positive experiences while those that could be future residents, or loved ones of future residents, putting out negative perceptions of the industry.

For Health Dimensions, education is the best way to combat negative social media posts, and staying vigilant to defend the industry when headline risk or viral posts try to smear an already tarnished name. Education took the form of showing the public what the day-to-day looked like in the nursing home.

“I think we need to stand up for ourselves more, and when some of these horrible stories come out, release statements that contradict them and tell the truth,” said Shvetzoff Hennessey. “I looked at other professions during COVID and they were more aggressive in speaking out.”

Lev, however, felt a “re-education” was not the best way to change perceptions. Instead, outlets outside the industry need to take on the challenge.

“Educating people is never popular. People do not like to be educated, right? Everyone’s already educated, everyone knows everything and everyone lives on sound bites,” said Lev. “I think we need to come up with a way to penetrate the thinking, but not do it by ourselves.”

Lev pointed to vendors, patients, media and even celebrities as good partners to tell the industry’s story.

“I think us yelling from the rooftops for ourselves, it’s hard to make a compelling case,” added Lev. “I agree that we have to defend ourselves, I just disagree on how.”

Staffing and Industry Perception

An industry desperate for workers isn’t good for public perception either, panelists Lev and Shvetzoff Hennessey admitted, even if it is the truth.

Controlling the narrative can help with recruiting and retention, if the workforce thinks of skilled nursing as a “career pathway,” shifting the conversation away from pay and vaccine requirements.

“It’s dire, right? We need help, which is the truth, but how do we package [it]? If someone’s looking for a job and getting back in the workforce, their decision between work in an Amazon warehouse and [skilled nursing] isn’t about pay and having to get a vaccine, it’s about their career path,” explained Shvetzoff Hennessey.

Lev said operators should consider hiring outside of the industry, looking for people with the “character” to survive in a tough industry because that person believes in the mission of caring for others.

“I really feel like we can pull outside the industry in almost every level of the organization,” echoed Shvetzoff Hennessey. “We call them hospitality aides, or future [Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs)] they can come from anywhere. A lot of them came from service industries or hospitality.”

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