Nursing Homes for People of Color:
Still Segregated, Still Unequal


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Benzena Tucker (center) spent the last few years of her life in a public nursing home with peeling paint and overworked staff. She had no family and had been too ill to work for many years. At her side, are two volunteers, Wendy Josephs (l.) and Ricki Lewis (r.).

Benzena Tucker (center) spent the last few years of her life in a public nursing home with peeling paint and overworked staff. She had no family and had been too ill to work for many years. At her side, are two volunteers, Wendy Josephs (l.) and Ricki Lewis (r.) Benzena provided permission to publish this photo.

If Martin Luther King, Jr. was alive today, he would be 86. If he was like many elderly black Americans, he might well end up in a nursing home ranked lower in quality and with less well-trained nursing staff than a nursing home that many white Americans reside in. The facility would likely house a disproportionately larger proportion of people of color and on Medicaid than higher-quality nursing homes.

The disparities are easy to miss. After all, what happens in nursing homes stays in nursing homes, invisible to the rest of us. The only ones who see what’s going on are the patients, family and friends, and staff. If people report lousy conditions in the homes, nursing homes often vilify them. In fact, some would argue that the industry hides behind a smokescreen of patient privacy. Yes, there are inspections. Are they sufficient to drive equal care? Apparently not. Overall, the nursing home industry has changed little in terms of providing quality care for minority elders on par with what white elders get.

Documentation of inequality in long term care for minority elders dates back to enactment of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the passage of Medicare in 1966, which prohibited segregation in health facilities that accepted federal funds. In 1981, an Institute of Medicine report addressed the issue of segregated care in nursing homes. The hospital industry was forced to integrate to some degree at least, but nursing homes have been left largely alone.

Contrary to stereotypes, a large Commonwealth Fund analysis led by Vincent Mor, PhD, from the Department of Community Health at Brown University, found that segregation was lowest in the South and highest in the Midwest (Wisconsin, Missouri, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio). The study found that Cleveland, Ohio, followed closely by Gary, Indiana, were the most segregated cities for nursing homes. Additionally, black elders tended to be in nursing homes in the lowest quarter of quality ratings. Blacks were 1.7 times as likely as white Americans to reside in a nursing home that was subsequently thrown out of the Medicare and Medicaid programs because of poor quality and 2.64 times as likely to be in a facility housing predominantly Medicaid residents. Elderly black Americans are not the only groups at increased risk of going to a poor-quality nursing home. So are elderly Hispanics and probably many other groups not cited here.

The proliferation of for-profit nursing homes in an industry that was once largely nonprofit has also had adverse impacts. In this study, for-profit nursing homes have been found to have lower RN staff intensity and lower RN skill mix than nonprofits, jeopardizing patient care. Poor people on Medicaid are going to for-profit nursing homes at far greater rates in many parts of the country.

This post is a snapshot of one part of long term care, which is an immense, complex topic.

Readers would be misguided if they thought that disparities are concentrated in the Midwest and do not persist elsewhere. These two anecdotes, though not data, are telling. Friends of mine recently watched in tears as a dear African American male friend landed for a long stay in a one-star nursing home in New Jersey. The nursing home housed people of color on Medicaid primarily. My friends were inconsolable when they returned from a visit, quick to call it a “crowded, smelly, dumping ground.” I learned of another story from an older African American woman from Queens NY, a New York City government retiree. I worked with her for many years. When she felt that she could no longer keep up her house, she could not find a satisfactory long term care residence to move into. She never left home: her health deteriorated and eventually, she died at home.

These stark realities are shameful. It’s 2015. We can quibble about statistics, question cause,effect, or association, but outrage, remedies, and stiff penalties and incentives for change are desperately needed.


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Still Segregated, Still Unequal


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