Kudos, Sacramento Bee

Jeff vonKaenel

If you are old, are planning to get old or have a loved one in a nursing home, then I highly recommend you read The Sacramento Bee's three-part series on California nursing homes. This superb investigation examines the ownership of California nursing homes, showing dramatically different levels of care at for-profits and nonprofits. These findings, which were published over three days starting with the November 9 issue, are a must-read for anyone faced with choosing a health care facility as well as for those tasked with regulating this multibillion-dollar industry.

This series, written by Marjie Lundstrom and Phillip Reese, is journalism at its finest. After reviewing mind-numbing data from 1,260 California nursing homes, the Bee team found that 25 for-profit chains control one-half of the 120,000 licensed beds. Twenty of these 25 chains had below-average staffing levels. And there were certain chains, such as Plum Healthcare Group, which operates many of the facilities in Sacramento, that had significant and repeated problems.

The big cost for nursing homes is staffing. Inadequate staffing can lead to hefty profits but also inferior care. The Bee contrasted the nonprofit Eskaton, which has two of the top-performing facilities in Sacramento, with a higher staff-patient ratio and a turnover rate of only 21 percent in 2012, with the for-profit Lifehouse and Plum chains that had more than 70 percent turnover in the same year.

The Bee also illuminated a pattern of concealment, where a nursing home is owned by a limited-liability company, which is owned by another limited-liability company, which is owned by another one after that, with the primary owner at the top of the pile. This maze of ownership makes it hard for the public and regulators to connect the dots when an unfortunate death or repeated staffing shortages occur at facilities with connected owners.

In this story, the Bee connected the dots. This complicated story not only took great work, it also took time. The Bee, to their credit, funded reporters, computer experts, photographers, editors and artists, providing the extra time and money required to produce this important story.

And they did it at a time when they had just announced a company-wide loss due to declining ad revenue. As good as the Bee series was, and as good as the recent complicated story by Joe Rubin in SN&R on the city’s expensive and invasive water-meter-installation plan was, I doubt that any advertiser called either of us up saying, “I love your recent story, let’s run some ads for my jewelry store.”

Our community would benefit from more of these types of impactful stories. And most journalists would like to do more, but we struggle to find the additional resources needed to do it. Recently, some nonprofits have started assisting with the funding of journalism. The Bee’s recent nursing home series and SN&R’s water-meter story both demonstrate the importance of funding and producing this type of journalism.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.