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    Nursing homes get official visit

    The head of a federal agency that oversees Medicare and Medicaid services stops by two model nursing homes.

    By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 30, 2002

    ST. PETERSBURG -- Tom Scully's federal agency spends $550-billion a year, twice as much as the Pentagon. Millions of poor and elderly Americans stake their lives on that money. So, every few weeks, Mr. Medicare/Medicaid strolls through hospitals and nursing homes, checking out business.

    Tuesday was St. Petersburg's turn, and everything went hunky-dory.

    Scully chatted with administrators and nurses at two nursing homes recognized for providing excellent care. He posed for pictures and urged employees to e-mail him with suggestions. He even ran into the former personal secretary to ex-president George H. Bush, the man who got Scully into politics.

    "I wish all nursing homes looked like yours because most of them don't," Scully told chief executive officer Marshall Seiden, after touring Menorah Manor's dental clinic, beauty shop, rehab room and dementia unit.

    At Bon Secours Maria Manor, he touted a public information program that irked the nursing home industry earlier this year. His agency, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, took out full-page newspaper ads comparing how different nursing homes supposedly dealt with bed sores, pain, weight loss and other problems.

    "I got into Tampa last night, and I can find the best pizza in town and the best rental care company before I can find out information about what is the best nursing home," Scully said.

    Another ad will come out Nov. 12.

    "Patients have a right to say, if I can't get into Bon Secours, why can't the nursing home down the street do it just as well?"

    In fact, Bon Secours rated just average in the newspaper comparison, even though it recently won the state's rare Gold Seal for excellence.

    Industry representatives and advocates have criticized the agency's ad as distorting reality. A home that aggressively treats red areas on skin, for example, may show up as having more bed sores than a home that ignores rashes until they worsen.

    Scully said this was his 44th fact-finding trip into the field, and his third in Florida since he took his position a year and a half ago.

    "My agency was widely hated in the industry," he said. "I'm trying to change perceptions in the community and in Congress that we don't listen."

    He denied that his trip was timed to coincide with next week's gubernatorial election. He did make a campaign appearance Tuesday night with Republican Ginny Brown-Waite, running for Congress on the North Suncoast. But he said he's made similar appearances at the request of Democratic members of Congress.

    One surprise was resident Martha Smith, personal secretary to George Bush Sr. Her old boss calls her at least once a month, said Bon Secours marketing director Luanne Reese. New nurses or aides who take the call don't always believe the ex-president is on the line.

    "They go, 'Yeah. Yeah.' We hang up on President Bush more times than I like to think," Reese said.

    "I know George Bush Sr. and Jr." Scully told Mrs. Smith, who was seated quietly in a wheelchair.

    "Oh," she said, noncommittally.

    "I was actually a college friend of Marvin Bush, a lesser known brother."

    "Were the boys all hell-raisers?" a nurse asked.

    Mrs. Smith grinned: "Naaah."

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