Picking a home health agency just got a bit easier

Feds' 5-star ratings can assist in the choice

Published: August 13, 2015 05:00 PM

The federal government's recent introduction of a new, 5-star ratings system judging home health agencies could help ease the decision that millions of Americans make each year regarding home health care for an older or disabled person.

The new, free ratings, called Home Health Compare, hosted by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, judges about 9,300 private and public home health care providers (about 2,900 are not included). The five-star rating is based on nine measures. Another 20 measures are judged, but aren't included in the rating. 

On the Home Health Compare page, when you type in a zip code, a list of local home health agencies pops up. From the list, you can choose to compare reports on up to three agencies at a time. Or, you can type in the name of just one home health agency and get its report. 

The information is split into three categories: general information (is the agency public, private, or religious; services offered), quality of patient care (helping patients manage daily activities; managing pain and treating symptoms; treating wounds and preventing pressure sores; preventing harm, preventing unplanned hospice care), and results of patient surveys judging professionalism of care and communication, among other factors. You'll also see how the home health agency's rating stacks up against national and state averages.

I found the footnotes and links quite useful. Clicking on "Learn more about all the quality measures," for instance, led to a page listing five quality measures that contributed to the home health agencies' evaluations. The page included very specific sub-categories, and explained why each was important. Under "managing daily activities," for instance, were the quality measures "How often patients got better at walking or moving around," "How often patients got better at getting in and out of bed," and "How often patients got better at bathing." The accompanying explanations were detailed and informative.

Home health agency ratings by stars


Star rating

Number of agencies



















Not rated



Total 12,261

Source: Kaiser Health News analysis of Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services 


The drawbacks

The star ratings have some drawbacks, said Doris Peter, Ph.D., director of Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center. Some of the data in the ratings are based on self reporting, suggesting the agencies could game the system, she noted. With two of the measures, performance among all the agencies is so high that there is no true variation. More crucial, because of the method used, most home health agencies earn overall ratings of 3 to 3 1/2 stars—middling to slightly above that for the state and the nation. "If you compare three providers at a time, you aren't likely to find a high or low performer," Peter said.

In spite of that, Peter sees a benefit. "Most people get word-of-mouth recommendations, and this will be helpful because they can look up the ratings for an individual provider," she explained.

The star ratings don't allow users to sort from the best to the worst in a given market. But because the data are available to the public, "I'm sure somebody will eventually make a tool to download the data and sort it," Peter said.

The federal government also has created Nursing Home Compare, and is working on hospital ratings. Consumer Reports has its own Ratings of hospitals, as well as heart bypass surgical groups (by subscription), and health insurance plans

—Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

Need to retrofit your home for an older person? Consumer Reports Home Improvement Guide has ideas.

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