By Zach Shamberg
We define heroes in all sorts of ways. Our sports stars, a soldier, or those ordinary citizens who rise and do something great for society.
The COVID-19 epidemic has given rise to a new kind of hero: the healthcare worker.
Recently, the administrator of a Pennsylvania nursing home described her experiences with me from the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. She compared her co-workers and direct care staff to the brave heroes on September 11, 2001: the firefighters, police and emergency service professionals.
Though the circumstances are certainly different, the analogy holds true: today, there are frontline healthcare workers running into facilities to protect those in need as others are running out.
But a heroes’ commitment takes its toll. Currently, there are limited supplies of personal protective equipment. There are increased costs due to staffing shortages and overtime pay. With schools and daycare centers closed for the foreseeable future, there are many workers asking who must watch their children as they attempt to care for our most vulnerable population.
That’s why, when Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, or the first federal stimulus package, which included a $1.5 billion windfall in increased Medicaid dollars for Pennsylvania, the entire long-term care continuum breathed a sigh of relief.
As an advocate for long-term care providers, workers and residents, I breathed the same sigh. For the first time in weeks, I felt assured that these healthcare heroes would finally receive some relief in the form of critical funding to help with their staff, equipment and supplies.
But then I remembered the stark budget reality facing Pennsylvania: a $1 billion shortfall, plus $800 million in overdue payments from 2019, staring our governor and general assembly square in the face.
Let me be clear: it is critical that this federal funding be designated to support our areas of greatest vulnerability. And it is inconceivable that any increase in Medicaid funding from the federal government would not specifically outline nursing home providers and workers as the priority.
Already in financial jeopardy based on flat Medicaid funding since 2014, the COVID-19 epidemic has brought about a true liquidity crisis for many providers, just as their continued presence is most vital.
If we’re going to continue caring for the seniors of Pennsylvania, emergency financial support from the state and federal government will be necessary.
The state should put aside any consideration of its past budgetary woes and implement a direct pass-through payment to our long-term care providers, workers and residents to address extraordinary COVID-19 costs, rapid identification of eligibility, as well as an increase to established Medicaid funding levels.
That nursing home administrator was correct: it is not an exaggeration to say that the response from caregivers at long-term care facilities has been truly heroic.
It is also not an exaggeration to say that this public health emergency threatens those most in need of our care: our seniors.
It is not a time for politics or jurisdictional arguments or anything other than a recognition of an immediate responsibility to support those who care for a generation of Pennsylvanians worthy of our deepest concern.
Our members of Congress did their job in Washington. It’s now time for state government to do theirs in Harrisburg.
Our healthcare heroes will be watching.
Zach Shamberg is the president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, a statewide advocacy organization for Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable older residents and their providers of care. He writes from Harrisburg.