The Human Rights Commission is calling for a star-rating system that would expose poorly performing rest homes to help families avoid them.
Commissioner Jackie Blue also said aged residential care was at serious risk from under-funding and low wages.
She made her call in the week in which the Health Ministry began publishing full, 100-page audits of rest homes on its website in a six-month trial to see if the public finds them useful.
The United States Nursing Home Compare website gives homes an overall one-to-five star rating plus sub-ratings on quality of care (using measurements such as pressure-injury rates), health inspections and staffing levels.
Dr Blue, a former National MP, said a system like that was in line with earlier commission recommendations and would be a great help to families.
"It's like the district health board targets. Everyone can go to the newspaper and see where your DHB sits. There are different targets, it's easy to understand, you don't have to go through 50 pages trying to figure it all out.
"I certainly support making it much easier for consumers to understand how their local rest homes are tracking. With an ageing population it's quite urgent ... We shouldn't put our heads in the sand over this," said Dr Blue, whose comments came in response to the Herald's week-long series on rest homes.
She endorsed the commission's earlier investigation of rest homes, Caring Counts, which called for the restoration of comprehensive, mandatory staff/resident ratios. It also recommended the state boost funding by $140 million a year to lift residential and home-based carers' pay to the same rates as public hospital care staff. Dr Blue said: "While it is such a low-paid profession you get high turnover of staff and you lose skills and experience. The Government does need to put more resources into aged care."
She said her views on aged care had been influenced by her father-in-law's experience in a geriatric hospital last year. "It will remain nameless, but he got appalling care. We were very unhappy. Eventually he got moved to a hospice where he spent the last three weeks of his life."
There is support among many rest home owners and aged-care health experts for a form of public rating.
Associate Health Minister Jo Goodhew defended the quality of aged residential care and said a star-rating system would not be introduced. The revamped ministry website, full audits and the traffic light system for audit summaries had provided "huge transparency".
She said funding would "continue to be tight next year", but emphasised it had risen by 25 per cent for aged residential care since 2008/9, compared with 17 per cent for health funding overall. She opposed making the staffing-level guidelines mandatory, because good care flowed from the culture of a rest home and was not related to staff numbers.
The ministry said a single "star rating" system, would require considerable averaging of results over different areas, reducing the meaningfulness of the final rating.
• Homes caring for 32,000 of our oldest people say they are funded to provide only "a minimum level of care".
• State funding increases haven't kept up with the rising age, dependency and sickness of the elderly in care.
• Many homes employ fewer nurses than recommended in voluntary guidelines and make up the gap with extra caregivers.
• Caregiver pay is so low that half leave within their first year.
• Building new rest homes depends on a cross-subsidy from retirement villages and premium charges for extras such as en-suite bathrooms.