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September 29, 2003
New Rule to Allow Feeding Assistants in Nursing Homes

Under a final rule about to be issued by the Bush administration, nursing homes will be allowed to hire part-time workers to help feed patients--a task currently restricted to licensed nurses, certified nurse's aides, and other healthcare professionals.

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The New York Times reports that nursing homes, facing a severe labor shortage, have long sought permission to hire such "feeding assistants."

Administration officials contend the new workers will improve the quality of care, since they'll alleviate some of the workload on nurses and nurse's aides. And a preamble to the new rule states that feeding assistants will cost less than nurse's aides, since they will usually be paid the minimum wage and often work part-time.

The people most likely to fill these jobs are retirees, homemakers, older students, and others available to work for a few hours a day, though nursing homes could also use clerical workers, laundry employees, and members of the housekeeping staff to help feed patients, the preamble adds.

The rule is drawing opposition from patient-advocate groups, such as the Alzheimer's Association and the AARP, whose director of federal affairs, David M. Certner, said the change could cause "real harm to nursing home residents."

The Times notes that while nurse's aides must put in 75 hours of training, the new feeding assistants will only be required to complete an 8-hour training course. Likewise, assistants will not be given the competency test that nurse's aides must take.

Anna M. Spinella, 69, an advocate for nursing home residents in Florida, told the Times: "This is a dangerous Band-Aid approach to a bigger problem." She predicted that some homes would replace nurse's aides with lower-paid feeding assistants.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, expressed concern over the rule, arguing that feeding nursing-home residents should be a job for skilled employees. "Malnutrition and dehydration are chronic nursing home problems," he said.

The Times cited government statistics showing that 47 percent of nursing home residents need some help in eating, while 21 percent are completely dependent on such aid.

The rule will be published in the Federal Register and will take effect 30 days later.


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