Choosing a nursing home for a relative is never pleasant. Fortunately, however, comparing nursing homes just got easier.

The results of a government survey of the nation's 17,000 nursing homes is now available on the Medicare website. Consumers can see how a facility was rated in 10 categories, including percentage of patients with pain, delirium, and bedsores.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson announced the results yesterday. In a press release, Thompson said, "Not only will consumers be better informed, but nursing homes, themselves, will be able to see more clearly what they must do to make the quality grade. They will have to compete in the quality arena."

The information is based on data that nursing homes, themselves, must report as part of receiving Medicare funds. Also included are the results of annual inspections and complaint investigations. Facilities looking to improve their scores can get advice from the quality improvement organizations under contract with Medicare.

High-quality nursing home care doesn't come cheap. A year's stay can cost between $50,000 and $150,000. If someone can't afford such steep prices, then Medicaid takes over -- but only after most of the person's assets have been depleted. And do you want the government determining where you or your parents get admitted, and thus the level of care?

Enter long-term care insurance, which covers (to varying degrees) nursing home costs. Some policies even cover expenses incurred by people who don't need full-time care, such as physical therapy in the beneficiary's own home.

Like many forms of insurance, long-term care insurance gets more expensive as you age. Generally, people in their late 50s to early 60s should begin evaluating the need for long-term care insurance and which features make sense. A comprehensive policy can be pricey, but ensuring that you or your parents will have the best care might be worth it.