Whitehouse Pushes for COVID-19 Senate Proposal to Protect Residents, Employees

Published in the Pawtucket Times on March 1, 2021

As the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic approaches, U.S Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) joins Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) in introducing a legislative proposal to save lives of nursing home residents and employees and assist with vaccinations.   At press time, over 1.3 million nursing residents and workers in long-term care facilities have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 170,000 have died so far, accounting for approximately 35 percent of COVID-19 deaths nationwide.

Taking a Close Look at S.333

Last week, S.333, “The COVID-19 Nursing Home Protection Act,” was thrown into the legislative hopper.  Initially introduced last Congress, the latest version, now being considered by the Senate Finance Committee, would provide funding to give nursing homes the needed resources to keep residents and workers safe; funding would go towards providing vital infection control assistance and organizing local health and emergency workers – known as “strike” or “surge” teams – to manage COVID-19 outbreaks and care for residents.  At this time no House companion measure has been introduced.

S. 333, introduced on Feb. 22, would provide $210 million for the Secretary of HHS to contract with quality improvement organizations to provide essential infection control assistance to nursing homes. 

Moreover, the legislative proposal would also send $750 million in funding to states to implement “strike” or “surge” teams. States are using “strike” or “surge” teams to ensure a sufficient number of aides, nurses and other providers are available to care for residents. Such teams also help manage COVID-19 outbreaks within a facility, particularly as vaccinations proceed in these settings. Since August, approximately 20 percent of nursing homes have reported each week that they do not have a sufficient workforce to care for residents.”

The impact of the pandemic has been devastating to minority communities, where reports have indicated that facilities serving significant numbers of Black and Hispanic residents were twice as likely to have COVID-19 infections. S. 333 would require the HHS Secretary to collect and make public demographic data on COVID-19 cases and deaths, including information on age, race, ethnicity, and preferred language. 

Whitehouse supports President Joe Biden’s call for the implementation of strike teams in his American Rescue Plan to help address these persistent shortages as well as the collection and dissemination of data on suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths by race, ethnicity and preferred language.

Controlling COVID-19 Outbreaks in the Nation’s Nursing Homes

“Nursing home residents and staff have been through a traumatic year,” said Whitehouse who sites on the Senate Finance Committee.  “We need to prioritize vaccinating and caring for the Americans who live and work in these settings.  That means providing additional staff as needed to control outbreaks and making sure every resident and care worker who wants a vaccine can get one.,” said the Rhode Island’s junior Senator who has served since Jan. 4, 2007.

“As more than 170,000 residents and workers in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have died from COVID-19, it is critical that Congress pass the COVID-19 Nursing Home Protection Act,” says Sen. Bob Casey, Chair of the U.S. Special Committee on Aging.

“This bill would address persistent staffing shortages in nursing homes by utilizing strike teams, promote infection control protocols and require that demographic data is collected on COVID-19 cases and deaths,” notes Casey.

Adds Casey, “The challenge this terrible virus poses are unprecedented and requires an immediate and extraordinary response. That is why my colleagues and I are advancing strategies to give states what they need – funding for ‘strike’ teams to help address staffing shortages in nursing homes and assist with vaccinations in these settings. We have an obligation to protect our most at-risk citizens.”

 “We applaud the efforts of Senator Whitehouse and his colleagues to provide funding for the protection of nursing home residents and staff,” said Scott Fraser, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Health Care Association, an affiliate of the Washington, DC-based American Health Care Association.  “We are especially pleased with the creation of strike teams to address the critical issue of staffing shortages during times of crisis.  This is a suggestion that RIHCA brought to Senator Whitehouse’s attention this past Spring when our homes were in critical need of additional staff due to the pandemic.  We thank him for listening and taking action,” he says.

At press time, 12 Democratic Senators join Sens. Whitehouse, Casey, Warnock, Blumenthal, and Booker, becoming cosponsors to this legislation.  They are: Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Tina Smith (D-MN), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Jack Reed (D-RI), Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI). 

A Call for Bipartisan Support

With the Senate now under Democratic control, there is a good chance that S. 333 will be considered by the Senate Finance Committee and if passed sent to the floor for consideration.   During the 116th Congressional session, the former Senate GOP Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, who often called himself the “Grim Reaper,” sent Democratic legislation to a legislative graveyard, refusing to act on Democratic legislation, even proposals with bipartisan support.

It’s time for Senate Republicans to support a Democratic proposal that protects the health and safety and the wellbeing of nursing home residents and workers in the nation’s 15,600 nursing homes. 

Partisan politics shouldn’t play a role in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to not urge his caucus to support this worthy legislative proposal.  S. 333 truly deserves bipartisan support and enactment, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

AARP’s new COVID-19 Dashboard for national/local Nursing Home Data

Published in RINewsToday.com on October 26, 2020

While public health experts are predicting a second spike of the COVID-19 virus, expecting it to hit the nation as early as – now – and reaching its peak in December, AARP releases its Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard created to provide four-week snapshots detailing the infiltration of the virus into the nation’s nursing homes and its impact on residents and staff.  AARP’s latest Public Policy Institute analysis is the result of the Washington, DC-based aging advocacy group’s successful efforts to push for the public reporting of nursing home COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Using data collected by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services—which is self-reported by nursing homes—the AARP Public Policy Institute, in collaboration with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio, created the AARP Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard to provide four-week snapshots of the virus’ infiltration into nursing homes and impact on nursing home residents and staff. The first release of the dashboard on October 14 reveals that nursing homes in every state reported shortages of PPE, ranging from 8 percent of facilities in the best-performing states, to 60 percent in the lowest-performing state. The dashboard also compared state and national data on COVID-19 cases and deaths, staff cases and staffing shortages.

Key Findings of AARP’s First Dashboard

The AARP Public Policy Institute will analyze data and report on key findings as the dashboard is updated over time.  Here are some observations about AARP’s first Dashboard (using data from August 24 to September 20, in which 95 percent of the nation’s 15,366 nursing homes submitted data for this time period):

According to the database, in every state, nursing homes indicated a shortage of PPE (defined as not having a one-week supply of N95 masks, surgical masks, gowns, gloves and eye protection during the previous four weeks). Nationally, about one quarter (25.5 percent) of nursing homes had a PPE shortage during the Aug. 24 to Sept. 20 reporting period. In the highest performing state, 8 percent of nursing homes had a PPE shortage; in the lowest-performing state, 60 percent did not have a one-week supply.

The researchers note that while considerable attention has been paid to infections among nursing home residents, it is also critically important to consider direct-care staff. In the four weeks ending Sept. 20, one-quarter (24 percent) of nursing homes had at least one confirmed COVID-19 case among residents, and twice as many (50 percent) had at least one confirmed staff case. Per 100 nursing home residents, there were 2.6 COVID-19 resident cases and 2.5 staff cases, corresponding to a total of about 55,000 cases nationally.

Finally, there is considerable variation across states. COVID-19 deaths in the four weeks ending Sept. 20 averaged 0.5 per 100 residents across the nation (about 1 out of every 200 residents). At the state level, the death rate was as high as 1.2 per 100 residents (about 1 out of 80), and several states reported no resident deaths in the past month.

Looking at Rhode Island, AARP’s first dashboard detailed the following: 

·         2.2 COVID cases per 100 residents

·         0.2 COVID deaths per 100 residents

·         1.7 staff cases per 100 residents

·         19.7 percent of nursing homes without a 1-week supply of PPE

·         28.9 percent of nursing homes with staffing shortages

AARP’s dashboard will be updated every four weeks to track trends over time and will evolve to include more categories to follow other measures of interest.

As Others See It – in Rhode Island

“We have been very clear in our messaging: No state has done a good enough job to protect nursing home residents and staff,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “That said, it is good to see that in the first round of data postings on the AARP Nursing Home COVID Dashboard shows Rhode Island in better-than average shape compared to other states. But to our point, anyone in Rhode Island with a loved one in a nursing home expects – hopes and prays – for more than ‘better than average.”

“As we see daily reports of increased cases and deaths, safety concerns for nursing home residents and staff should be increasing as well. The pandemic is far from over and among many complicated aspects of dealing with it is transparency. The COVD Dashboard provides the public with a benchmark and tracks monthly changes; people need to pay attention and demand action at all levels to make nursing homes safer. These aren’t just numbers. These are lives,” says Connell.

On the other hand, the Rhode Island Department of Health questions the accuracy of AARP Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard as it relates to its Rhode Island findings. “The data don’t accurately reflect the Rhode Island reality in part because of how the questions are phrased,” says Joseph Wendelken, RIDOH’s Public Information Officer, specifically related to PPE data. “The question asks about PPE in the nursing homes. Nursing homes receive a weekly supply of PPE from their corporate warehouses. The question asks about one point in time. On occasion, reporting happens shortly before facilities receive their re-supply,” he says.

“RIDOH has taken several steps to protect nursing home residents, says Wendelken, noting that his department has built Congregate Setting Support Teams to conduct targeted to facilities regarding infection control, PPE, testing, and staffing. 

“We have weekly contact with facilities. We’ve worked with facilities to develop creative plans for reopening. We have implemented regular testing of staff every 10 to 14 days. We will take the lessons and experience we’ve gained from these past seven months and apply them to the increase in cases we see today,” adds Wendelken. 

According to Scott Fraser, President/CEO, of the Rhode Island Health Care Association (RIHCA), the AARP analysis shows what his organization has been saying in the last few weeks and months—that COVID-19 cases in nursing homes continue to drop. “Rhode Island is below the national average in all categories measured for this dashboard,” he says, stressing that the number of cases in nursing homes is dropping as is the number of deaths,” notes Fraser.  

The successful efforts to protect nursing home residents and staff can be directly linked to the measures the facilities have taken since the pandemic first hit, notes Fraser. “We are stocking up on PPE. We initially suspended visitation.  We are testing staff regularly and residents when necessary.  We are carefully monitoring visitors and vendors who come into our homes.  We isolate and quarantine anyone who tests positive or any new resident who moves into our facilities,” he says. 

Fraser says that RIHCA continues to advocate for regular testing of vendors who come into the state’s nursing homes, including ambulance drivers, lab technicians, and hospice workers.  RIHCA continues to call on RIDOH to renew the policy of having two negative tests before a hospital patient can be released to a nursing home and to allow those certified nursing assistants who received temporary emergency certifications to obtain their permanent licenses.

A Call to Action

More than 84,000 residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have died from COVID-19, representing 40 percent of all coronavirus fatalities in the U.S., according to Kaiser Family Foundation’s most recent analysis released on Oct. 8. Yet in its statement announcing the release of its Dashboard, AARP charges that federal policymakers have been slow to respond to this crisis, and no state has done a good enough job to stem the loss of life. 

According to AARP, policymakers have taken some action, such as requiring nursing homes to self-report COVID-19 casers and deaths at the federal level, ordering testing, and providing limited PPE and other resources to nursing homes. But more must be done, says the nation’s largest aging advocacy group in its statement urging elected officials “to acknowledge and take action to resolve this national tragedy — and to ensure that public funds provided to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are used for testing, PPE, staffing, virtual visits and for the health and safety of residents.”

COVID-19 cases across the U.S. are again on the rise, and nursing homes remain a hotbed for the virus, says AARP promising to “continue to shine a light on what’s happening in nursing homes so that families have the information they need to make decisions, and lawmakers can be held accountable.”

AARP has called for the enactment of the following five-point plan to protect nursing home and long-term care facility residents — and save lives — at the federal and state levels:

·         Prioritize regular and ongoing testing and adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for residents and staff — as well as inspectors and any visitors.

·         Improve transparency focused on daily, public reporting of cases and deaths in facilities; communication with families about discharges and transfers; and accountability for state and federal funding that goes to facilities.

·         Require access to facilitated virtual visitation, and establish timelines, milestones and accountability for facilities to provide in-person visitation.

·         Ensure quality care for residents through adequate staffing, oversight and access to in-person formal advocates, called long-term care ombudsmen.

·         Reject immunity for long-term care facilities related to COVID-19.

To see AARP Nursing Home COVID 19 Dashboard, go to:

www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/pdf/2020/10/rhodeisland-nursing-home-dashboard-october-2020-aarp.pdf

Nursing Home Care in the Spotlight

Published in the Woonsocket Call on August 4, 2019

Following on the heels of its March 6 hearing, “Not Forgotten: Protecting Americans from Abuse and Neglect in Nursing Homes,” the Senate Finance Committee held its second nursing home hearing this year, “Promoting Elder Justice: A Call for Reform,” on July 23, in 215 Dirksen, to study proposed reforms to reduce neglect and abuse in the nation’s nursing homes and to put a spotlight on the need to reauthorize key provisions of the Elder Justice Act.

During the two hour and twenty-minute morning hearing, Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) along 11 members of the Senate committee listened to the testimony of five panel witnesses.

In his opening statement, Grassley acknowledged that the work isn’t done yet to improving the care in the nation’s nursing homes and Congress must protect nursing home and assisted living residents and those in group living arrangements from harm. The Iowa Senator noted in the recently released U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report the federal agency that provides auditing, evaluation, and investigative services for Congress, noted that while one-third of nursing home residents may experience harm while under the care of these facilities, in more than half of these cases, the harm was preventable.

Calls for Bipartisan Efforts to Improve Nursing Home Care

Grassley called on Congress to reauthorize programs, such as the Elder Justice Act, to put the brakes on the growing trend of elder an abuse fueled by social media.

Adds, Wyden, in his opening statement, there is now an opportunity for Congress to come together to hammer out bipartisan legislative reforms to fix the nation’s nursing home oversight efforts. He urged his fellow Senate committee members to work to reduce the instances of physical, sexual, mental and emotion abuse in nursing homes, that appears to be increasing. He also called for a redo to the federal nursing home rating system because it does not reflect the increased prevalence of abuse.

During the first panel, Megan H. Tucker, Senior Advisor for Legal Review, of the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG), stated that abuse and neglect oftentimes are not properly identified, reported or even addressed. While most providers are delivering good care, Tucker warned that Health and Human Service safeguards are lacking.

Tucker testified that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) should use data more effectively and close the gaps in their reporting process to ensure that abuse and neglect are identified and the deficiencies corrected.

Concluding the first panel, John E. Dicken, Director, Health Care, of the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), discussed a newly released GAO report, released at the hearing, that detailed a growing trend of abuse and neglect of residents. According to one GAO report findings, abuse deficiencies more than doubled between 2013 (430) and 2017 (875), with the greatest increase in actual harm and immediate jeopardy deficiencies, and that abuse is still under-reported, he said. The GAO report also expressed concern over “significant gaps” with CMS’s oversight.

Leading the second panel, Robert Blancato, Coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition, called on Congress to reauthorize, the Elder Justice Act. With elder abuse becoming a “national emergency,” he urged lawmakers to dedicate funding for Adult Protective Services at the local and state levels. Blancato also stressed the importance of strengthening the long-term care ombudsman program, continuing the Elder Justice Coordinating Council, authorizing an Advisory Board on Elder Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation, and finally funding for elder abuse forensic centers.

President and CEO, Mark Parkinson, of the Washington, DC-based American Health Care Association (AHCA), representing nearly 10,000 of the 15,000 plus nursing homes in the country who provide care to nearly four million individuals each year, stated he was not at the hearing to defend poor care but to provide solutions to Congress to prevent such incidents from happening again.

Fixing the Problem

Parkinson testified that over the past seven years, facilities participating in AHCA’s quality initiative, have shown improvement in 18 of 24 quality measures. Specifically, there are less hospital readmissions, fewer antipsychotic medications being prescribed, staff are spending more time than ever before with residents and today’s nursing homes are more person-centered care today than ever before.

Parkinson called on lawmakers to improve employee background check systems, add patient satisfaction data to CMS’s nursing home rating system, address the severe staffing shortage and to adequate fund Medicaid.

Finally, Lori Smetanka, Executive Director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, ended the second panel discussions, by warning that more must be done to protect nursing home residents from abuse.

Smetanka urged Congress to take steps to enforce minimum requirements for sufficient staffing, establish standards and oversight for nursing home ownership and operations, prevent rollback of nursing home regulatory standards, increase the transparency of information and to strengthen and adequately fund elder justice provisions.

Now, with the Congress putting poor nursing home care on its policy radar screen, both Democratic and Republic congressional leadership must work closely together to come up with bipartisan solutions. Fix this problem once and for all.

Senate Finance Committee members — Senators Lankford, Stabenow, Daines, Menendez, Carper, Cardin, Warner, Casey, Brown, Cortez Masto, and Hassan – attended the July 23 hearing

To listen to this Senate Finance Committee hearing, go to http://www.c-span.org/video/?462733-1/finance.

For a copy of the GAO report, http://www.gao.gov/assets/710/700418.pdf.