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By Zach Shamberg
Two weeks ago, Gov. Tom Wolf, state Aging Secretary Robert Torres, state lawmakers and members of Pennsylvania’s healthcare community gathered in Philadelphia to announce several new initiatives geared toward protecting Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable populations.
That event was a preview of Wolf’s 2020-21 budget proposal, where he asked a joint session of the state House and Senate to give legislative authorization to more than $40 million in new spending to help those in need.
We appreciated Wolf’s proposed funding plan to ensure vulnerable populations have access to critical services. The proposed $1.4 million to enhance the state’s ventilator grant program is desperately needed, especially for the patients receiving this specialized care as well as the long-term care providers who lose more than $400 for each patient each day they provide care.
At a time when skilled nursing facility operating margins have fallen below zero percent for the first time in 34 years, incremental improvements to this program are critical to improving the quality of life for Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable.
But when you hear the term “vulnerable populations,” who do you think of first? For me, it’s people like my grandfather, who resided in a Montgomery County nursing home for most of 2019.
Yet, noticeably absent from the governor’s proposed budget initiatives was any mention of the older Pennsylvanians who receive care in more than 700 nursing homes across the state. Wolf’s new funding initiatives are certainly important, but they do nothing to address the larger Medicaid funding crisis happening in Pennsylvania.
For six consecutive years, Medicaid reimbursement rates for nursing home residents have been flat-funded, even as one of every three nursing home residents relies on Medicaid for their daily care. Today, our state’s seniors suffer from more complex medical conditions, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which requires more advanced and more expensive care.
And the impact of those six years has already caused significant unrest and volatility in Pennsylvania’s long-term care sector.
Since 2018, more than 100 Pennsylvania nursing homes have been reorganized, sold or changed ownership.
This follows a pattern that has taken place in other states – look no further than Connecticut, Massachusetts, Illinois, Texas or Washington. Those states experienced this same kind of instability until there was only one option left for those providers of care.
Across the country, long-term care providers are closing their doors as a result of chronic Medicaid underfunding.
If we don’t make a meaningful investment in our Medicaid program in this year’s budget, Pennsylvania will become just another state on that list. Nursing homes closures put hundreds of hardworking staff out of jobs and force residents and families to seek access to care hundreds of miles from their communities.
Often in politics, we wait for a bridge to collapse before we invest in our aging infrastructure. As the third oldest state in the country, we cannot wait for our long-term care system to crumble before we invest in our aging population.
And as our state ages rapidly — within 10 years, 1 in 5 Pennsylvania residents will be age 65 or older — our seniors and their families need the options and services long-term care facilities provide now more than ever.
Our commonwealth needs to do everything it can to ensure the doors remain open to provide the quality care Pennsylvania’s seniors need and deserve.
It doesn’t get more “vulnerable” than that. Let’s make our seniors in nursing homes a priority in 2020.
Zach Shamberg is the president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, a statewide trade group. He writes from Harrisburg.
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