John O'Connor
John O’Connor

For most senior living operators, it’s a frightening, dangerous and terrifying thought. One that most wish would go away. I’m referring of course to the possible arrival of federal oversight.

The subject came up again Tuesday at an American Health Care Association/’National Center for Assisted Living press conference, when my colleague Lois Bowers asked whether recent federal assistance might act as a catalyst.

“We’re always watching it,” replied Clif Porter, senior vice president of government affairs for the organization.

Rightfully so. There may not be a senior living operator in America who wants the feds to determine regulations or rates. State rules may be inconsistent and sometimes unfair, but they tend to be far less draconian. That is, if we are to use what happened to skilled care operators as an example.

Small wonder that groups like AHCA/NCAL, Argentum and others have pressed lawmakers to leave bad enough alone.

Fortunately for the field, there does not seem to be any real momentum to change the referees. But today’s sunshine is not necessarily a good indicator of what tomorrow will bring.

My view on the subject is solidly in the minority. I feel that federal rules are just a matter of time. Mind you, I’m not wishing for that to happen. But in the immortal words of President Biden, “C’mon man!”

Let’s start by considering senior living residents themselves. There is no doubt they are arriving more in need of help than ever. From a profile perspective, today’s resident bears a remarkable resemblance to the typical nursing home resident of 20 years ago.

Why does that matter? For this simple reason: There was no debate two decades ago as to whether nursing homes needed to be federally regulated.

In fact, nursing facilities have had to play by the federal playbook since Medicare and Medicaid were enacted more than five decades ago.

That alone raises an interesting goose-versus-gander issue.

Then there’s this: If anything, assisted living is going to be accepting residents with higher and increasingly complex healthcare needs going forward. Let’s finally say the silent part out loud: assisted living is a healthcare player. To pretend otherwise is to deny reality.

If the first reality doesn’t tip the scales toward more federal intervention, the second surely must.

As for the current situation in which states remain in charge, here’s some parting advice: Enjoy it while it lasts.

John O’Connor is editorial director for McKnight’s Senior Living and its sister media brands, McKnight’s Long-Term Care News, which focuses on skilled nursing, and McKnight’s Home Care. Read more of his columns here.