By Adam Marles
As Pennsylvanians begin to enjoy warm summer days, thousands of older adults living in nursing homes, personal care, and assisted living can not leave their facilities or receive visits from their loved ones.
This has been the reality for many older adults since our commonwealth entered into lockdown four months ago. The impact of this social isolation on residents and their families has been tremendous. Prohibition from being with those closest to you has previously been reserved for society’s worst offenders, but COVID-19 has foist it upon those who may have only a precious few of these moments left, in an effort to keep them safe.
Let me be clear: Care providers desperately want to reopen their facilities for loved ones to visit residents, but they also know that while fatality rates have dropped considerably in the general public, this has not been the case for senior care settings.
For weeks, lawmakers in Harrisburg have held numerous hearings to discuss ways in which Pennsylvania can effectively address novel coronavirus outbreaks in our nursing homes. I believe they are well-intentioned and meaningful. Speakers have helped to educate Pennsylvanians on the care and financial challenges senior care facilities face every day during this pandemic.
Debates on how to solve our crisis will continue — these facilities remain at the epicenter of this daily threat — but I think we can all agree on one thing: Testing is needed, but it comes at a considerable financial cost that many nursing homes simply cannot afford. A robust testing program can better equip our facilities with data necessary to attack this virus and slow its spread.
When done, testing is effective but quite expensive, and facilities simply do not have the resources to keep up with payments. Each test kit costs an average of $100.
As the state has mandated universal and continual testing of staff and residents, it’s simply becoming impossible to provide the critically important personal protective equipment (PPE) and test kits to ensure protections in a state that has one of the highest rates of positive nursing home cases in the nation.
Some may point to funding approved earlier this year to help senior care facilities, which was used to provide dedicated staff with the PPE they needed to protect themselves and their residents in the early stages of this crisis, as well as hero pay for staff on the front lines. And they deserved every penny. That investment by state lawmakers undoubtedly saved lives, but much more work needs to be done.
A private company, CVS Health, has partnered with the Pennsylvania Department of Health to put a state testing program into place, but the plan focuses resources mainly on facilities with new or ongoing outbreaks. While that is important, it provides nominal support for the nearly 60 percent of all nursing care facilities in Pennsylvania that have not had any residents test positive. Proactively preventing cases has required a tremendous effort but still comes at a considerable cost.
State lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf can solve our testing dilemma and move us toward a reopening that will safely reunite thousands of Pennsylvania families with their loved ones.
Right now, Pennsylvania is sitting on $1 billion in federal CARES Act funding that was provided for this purpose. Additionally, there is up to $175 million designated for testing that has not been disbursed or allocated since Gov. Wolf signed HB 2510 more than five weeks ago, and there is no information available to providers on how they may be able to obtain any of this funding.
Time to put this funding to work is overdue.
Remember, we do not yet have a vaccine for COVID-19. But our front-line health care workers and residents deserve to feel safe. So do their loved ones. Families need to be able to visit and connect with their relatives who have been in quarantine since March. That only happens if we can safely reopen long-term care facilities, which requires considerable financial support from state lawmakers and the governor.
We have written, ad nauseam, about how the state’s Medicaid funding support has fallen short for years, and how those shortfalls have made it impossible for facilities to keep up with the rate of health care inflation. As a result, long-term care facilities entered the pandemic struggling to attract and retain good employees and lacking adequate funds to immediately invest in resources to mitigate the spread of the virus.
That long-term underfunding continues to make this fight harder. But this isn’t about the long term. This is about an intense, around-the-clock fight against a pandemic — a battle that is being waged by Pennsylvania facilities day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second.
Whether you have a loved one in a senior care facility or not, speak up. Call or visit your local lawmaker or the governor’s office. When you do, demand funding and better support for Pennsylvania’s nursing homes, personal care homes and assisted living facilities.
Simply put, we cannot win this battle unless state lawmakers and the governor match this historic pandemic with historic funding from the CARES Act. We must do everything we can to protect Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable seniors.
And that will require all of us. Together.
Adam Marles is the president and CEO of LeadingAge PA, a nursing home industry trade group.