An Oct. 5 Health article on nursing home costs incorrectly identified a California nonprofit senior advocacy organization as Aiding the Elderly. The group is the Foundation Aiding the Elderly. (Published 10/7/04)

Costly Care The average cost of a private room in a nursing home now tops $70,000 a year -- $192 per day, according to a national survey by insurer MetLife. Semiprivate rooms average $61,685 ($169 daily). In the Washington area you'll pay more still: In the District, the average for a private room is $260; for a semiprivate, $230. In Silver Spring, rates are $204 and $186; in Arlington, $235 and $205.

But Wait Metlife isn't exactly an impartial observer. The company began gathering the cost data, said gerontologist Sandra Timmermann, director of the MetLife Mature Market Institute, to help agents sell long-term-care policies.

The survey also found that the cost of home health aides -- who provide care in people's homes -- averages $18 per hour nationally. In the Washington area, rates are a tad lower: $17 in the District and Arlington, and $16 in Silver Spring. MetLife's policies also cover such aides.

Choose Wisely Some senior advocates faulted MetLife for not citing Medicare and Medicaid rates, which tend to be lower, in its survey.

"They're referring to private pay, which is a very small portion of the people that are in nursing homes," said Carole Herman, founder and president of the California nonprofit Aiding the Elderly.

Actually, about half of nursing home residents pay out of their own savings, according to the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Those who exhaust their savings typically qualify for Medicaid, which covers most nursing home costs for people with limited income and assets. (Medicaid eligibility rules vary by state.) Medicare pays some nursing home expenses for people who require constant, skilled care, but only after a qualifying hospital stay of at least three days.

Before choosing a nursing home for a person who may need Medicaid or Medicare, confirm that it participates in these programs. Not all homes do.

-- January W. Payne