In the decade between 1999 and 2008, almost 3,000 nursing homes closed while the number of skilled nursing facility beds shrunk by nearly 100,000, or about 5 percent, according to a new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine. In a nation with more nursing homes than McDonald’s, and at a time when long-term care can be provided in other settings, that may not be a bad thing. These days, many frail elderly receive care at home or in assisted living facilities, settings they often prefer to skilled nursing facilities.

But the Archives study by Zhanlian Feng and coauthors also raised some serious concerns. The report concluded that many of these closures occured in minority and low-income communities, the same areas where other care alternatives may be unavailable.

Other studies have shown that relatively few assisted living facilities–which are overwhelmingly private pay–are located in these neighborhoods. In addition, while data are scarce, it appears that many low-income and minority serniors may have limited access to high-quality home care. In other words, for one segment of the population, good care may increasingly be unavailable. 

A study published last year in Health Affairs, David Stevenson and David Grabowski of the Harvard Medical School found that larger assisted living facilities (those with 25 beds or more) were far more likely to be located in higher income counties than in poor jurisdictions. 

As a result, low-income seniors who are unable to live at home–perhaps because there may be no one to care for them or because their home may not be suitable for someone with disabilities–have very few options. Many may move to small board-and-care homes–often a room they rent in a local home where assistance is provided by an unlicensed caregiver. Others may get no care at all.  

From the perspctive of the long-term care industry, the Archives paper reflects another troubling trend. Most long-term care in SNFs is paid by Medicaid, and reimbursements for these patients are often lower than the cost of providing care. By contrast, Medicare, which pays for post-acute and rehabilitation services, is far more generous. Medicare typically pays $500 or more per day for these services while Medicaid may pay just $125 for a long-term care bed (these payments vary by state and Medicare payments are adjusted to reflect patient needs).

The result: Growing industry consolidation and an increasing shift away from long-term care and towards more lucrative post-acute services. These choices make perfect economic sense. And they are often praised by advocates for the elderly, who argue that aging services should be provided in the community. However, for some seniors, including some with dementia or those with no family members to help provide care, nursing homes or assisted living facilities may be their only alternatives. Sadly, for many, those options are increasingly unavailable.