It’s time. Staff vaccinations required for nursing homes as 10 RI facilities see new COVID cases

Published in Rhode Island News Today on August 24, 2021

With the COVID-19 Delta variant spiking across the country especially among the unvaccinated, last Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced at an afternoon address at the White House that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will require nursing homes to require all workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition for those facilities to continue receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funding.

According to federal data, of the 1.6 million nursing home workers across the  nation, about 540,000 — 40 percent of the work force — are unvaccinated.  

Since the spread of the Delta variant, there has been a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, especially in those states that have low rates of vaccinated workers. Both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) data confirm a strong relationship between the increase of COVID-19 cases among nursing home residents and the rate of vaccination among nursing home workers.

These new emergency federal regulations, crafted  by CDC and CMS, would apply to nearly 15,000 nursing home facilities, which employ approximately 1.6 million workers and serve approximately 1.3 million nursing home residents.

Rhode Island Gov. Dan J. McKee, along with other states, has already taken a similar step to protect nursing home residents by requiring all staff to be vaccinated and the new federal mandate will ensure consistent and equitable standards throughout the country. 

At a COVID-19 update held at the state the state capitol in early August, McKee called for the new vaccine mandate (as a term of employment) to take effect on Oct. 1st.

On August 23rd, Pfizer’s vaccine was fully approved by the FDA. Approvals of Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and booster shots are expected to follow soon.

According to CMS, the new mandate is a key component of protecting the health and safety of nursing home residents and staff by ensuring that all nursing home staff receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Over the past several months, millions of vaccinations have been administered to nursing home residents and staff, and these vaccines have shown to help prevent COVID-19 and have proven to be effective against the Delta variant.

“Keeping nursing home residents and staff safe is our priority. The data are clear that higher levels of staff vaccination are linked to fewer outbreaks among residents, many of whom are at an increased risk of infection, hospitalization, or death,” said CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure in a statement announcing the new vaccine mandate.  “We will continue to work closely with our partners at the CDC, long-term care associations, unions, and other stakeholders to advance policies that keep residents and staff safe. As we advance these new requirements, we’ll work with nursing homes to address staff and resident concerns with compassion and by following the science,” she said.

CMS says that it’s requiring all nursing home staff to be vaccinated is in keeping with the federal agency’s authority to establish requirements to ensure the health and safety of individuals receiving care from all providers and suppliers participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. About 62% of nursing home staff are currently vaccinated as of August 8 nationally, and vaccination among staff at the state level ranges from a high of 88% to a low of 44%. The emergence of the Delta variant in the United States has driven a rise in cases among nursing home residents from a low of 319 cases on June 27, to 2,696 cases on August 8, with many of the recent outbreaks occurring in facilities located in areas of the United States with the lowest staff vaccination rates.

Last May, CMS issued new regulations that require Long-Term Care (LTC) facilities and Intermediate Care Facilities for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities (ICFs/IID) to educate residents, clients, and staff about COVID-19 vaccination and, when available, offer a COVID-19 vaccine to these individuals. These regulations also mandate that LTC facilities report weekly COVID-19 vaccination data for residents and staff to the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN).

CMS will continue to analyze vaccination data for residents and staff from the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN) data as an additional method of compliance monitoring and in keeping with current practice, as well as deploy the Quality Improvement Organizations (QIOs)—operated under the Medicare Quality Improvement Program—to educate and engage nursing homes with low rates of vaccinations.

CMS strongly encourages nursing home residents and staff members to get vaccinated as the Agency undergoes the necessary steps in the rule-making process over the course of the next several weeks. CMS expects nursing home operators to act in the best interest of residents and their staff by complying with these new rules, which the Agency expects to issue next month.  CMS also expects nursing home operators to use all available resources to support employees in getting vaccinated, including employee education and vaccination clinics, as they work to meet this staff vaccination requirement.

Rhode Island Long Term Care Facilities with new cases in the last 14 days (as of 8/14/2020):

These RI nursing homes are on the RI Dept. of Health list with increased cases –

Alpine – Coventry – 5-9 cases

Avalone – Warwick – less than 5

St. Antoine – North Smithfield – less than 5

Woonsocket Health – Woonsocket – less than 5

All America Assisted Living – Warwick – less than 5

Anchor Bay – Johnston – less than 5

Smithfield Woods – Smithfield – less than 5

Sunrise House – Providence – less than 5

Bridge at Cherry Hill – Johnston – 5-9

Tockwotton – Providence – less than 5

AARP Strongly Supports Biden’s Vaccine Mandate in Nursing Homes 

In response to the Biden Administration directing all nursing homes that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds to require vaccinations for all staff, Nancy A. LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer, stated:  

“The Administration’s announcement today requiring vaccinations for nursing home staff is a significant step in the fight against this pandemic. Around 30% of COVID deaths have been among residents and staff in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, even though they represent less than 1% of the population. As the new variants are emerging, facilities cannot let preventable problems be repeated. Increasing vaccination rates in nursing homes is one of the most common sense and powerful actions we can take to protect the lives of vulnerable older adults.”

The AARP Public Policy Institute, in collaboration with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio, created the dashboard to provide snapshots of the virus’ infiltration into nursing homes and impact on nursing home residents and staff, with the goal of identifying specific areas of concern at the national and state levels in a timely manner.

Don’t Just Single Out Nursing Homes 

“We appreciate the Administration’s efforts to increase COVID-19 vaccinations in long term care. Unfortunately, this action does not go far enough. The government should not single out one provider group for mandatory vaccinations. Vaccination mandates for health care personnel should be applied to all health care settings. Without this, nursing homes face a disastrous workforce challenge,” warns Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) 

“Focusing only on nursing homes will cause vaccine hesitant workers to flee to other health care providers and leave many centers without adequate staff to care for residents. It will make an already difficult workforce shortage even worse. The net effect of this action will be the opposite of its intent and will affect the ability to provide quality care to our residents. We look forward to working with the Administration in the coming days to develop solutions to overcome this challenge,” says Parkinson.

The full Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard is available at www.aarp.org/nursinghomedashboard. For more information on how COVID is impacting nursing homes and AARP’s advocacy on this issue, visit www.aarp.org/nursinghomes.

Your eyes, ears, and teeth are connected to your body – Medicare/Medicaid at 56

Published in RINewsToday on August 2, 2021

Over 56 years ago, Congress became actively involved in the health insurance business with President Lyndon Johnson signing the Social Security Amendments establishing Medicare and Medicaid. The bipartisan legislation creating a national health insurance program. It was introduced in March 1965, and was passed by large majorities of Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate chambers. 

At the signing ceremony that took place at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri on July 30, 1965, Johnson handed the first Medicare cards, numbers one and two, to 81-year-old former President Harry S. Truman and his wife, Bess. Johnson proclaimed the former president to be “the real Daddy of Medicare.” Truman, the 33rd President, was considered to be the first president to vigorously call for national health insurance who ultimately saw his proposals stall on Capitol Hill, as the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association and conservatives tagged it “socialized medicine.” 

Celebrating Medicare and Medicaid 

On July 30th of this year, top federal officials, Congressional Democrats, and aging advocates celebrated the 56th Anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid.

“For decades, Medicare and Medicaid have been a lifeline and a steady foundation for our seniors, children, women, families, people with disabilities, and at every stage in life,” says HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, noting that about 140 million Americans have health insurance coverage through either Medicare (63 million) or Medicaid (74 million). An additional 4 million adults could benefit if the remaining 12 states expanded Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act.

“For 56 years, Medicare and Medicaid have made health coverage a reality for individuals and families when they have needed it,” adds Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, of the Centers for Medicare Services (CMS). “When President Lyndon Johnson called on Congress to spare the nation’s seniors of ‘the darkness of sickness without hope,’ nearly half of seniors were uninsured, most hospitals around the country were segregated, and health coverage was out of reach for many,” she noted. 

“Medicare and Medicaid were critical steps forward in the fight for civil rights that brought the peace of mind that health coverage provides to many, made health care access more equitable by requiring the integration of hospitals, and improved health outcomes across the country,” says LaSure.

With the health needs of those CMS programs recipients always evolving, LaSure calls for the expansion and strengthening of Medicare and Medicaid so they remain quality and reliable health programs. “Ensuring these programs also work to advance health equity nationwide is also a top priority for CMS. Access to health coverage is a right and no one should be left out, left behind or left on the sidelines,” she says.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also took time from her schedule to celebrate President Johnson’s landmark law creating Medicare and Medicaid. “Fifty-six years ago, our nation made a bedrock promise to our seniors and working families: that they deserve the dignity and security of quality, affordable health care. Today Medicare and Medicaid stand as pillars of health and justice, ensuring that millions of Americans receive the care they need, regardless of age or financial means,” says Pelosi.

“As we celebrate this anniversary, Democrats reaffirm this longstanding and unyielding belief: health care is a right, not a privilege. That is why we remain committed to defending Medicare and Medicaid against Republicans’ constant, callous attacks, as well as advancing legislation to bring down sky-high prescription drug prices, improve Medicare’s benefits for seniors and build on the success of the Affordable Care Act to lower health care costs for American’s families,” Pelosi adds.

As the nation celebrates Medicare and Medicaid’s 56th Anniversary, Max Richtman, president and CEO, of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, watches Congress’s continued debates about expanding Medicare benefits. “If you need to see a dentist, if you can’t see properly, if you can’t hear alarms, it’s not a luxury; it’s essential for the safety and health of older people,” he says.

Social Security Works Goes to Washington

On July 30, Social Security Works came to Capitol Hill to celebrate Medicare’s 56th anniversary by delivering more than 125,000 petitions to lawmakers urging them to lower the popular program’s eligibility age from age 65 to 60, allow Medicare to renegotiate lower prescription drug prices for everyone and to upgrade coverage to include vision, hearing and dental services.

“The 56th anniversary is as good as any other occasion to expand Medicare to cover more people, to do work that has not been done for generations,” says Dr.  Sanjeev Sriram, an adviser to the advocacy group Social Security Works, during the Capitol Hill rally. The Maryland primary care provider called these changes long overdue. 

“Now, as a doctor I can tell you: Your eyes, your ears, and your teeth are connected to your body,” said, Sriram during Friday’s rally on Capitol Hill to explain the importance Medicare covering vision, dental and hearing benefits. “I did not have to go to medical school to tell y’all this, but apparently I do have to tell Congress this.”

“We put Democrats in power to make changes, not excuses. It’s time to expand Medicare,” Sriram told senior advocates holding signs with the message, “Medicare for All” and “Medicare Expansion Now.”

Although Senate Democratic leadership agreed to expand Medicare in a recently $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package, the measure does not lower the program’s eligibility from age 65 to age 60, says Sriram, noting that lowering the Medicare’s age requirement gives more than 23 million people health care coverage.

While critics say that the nation can’t afford to add vision, dental, hearing and vision benefits, a recently released poll says the Americans support this expansion of benefits. In June 2021, survey findings released by Data for Progress and Social Security Works proves just how popular these proposals are. A survey of 1,175 likely voters shows a full 83% of voters support expanding Medicare to cover hearing, vision and dental care, including 86% of those over the age of 45. That popularity even crosses party lines: 89% of Democrats, 82 of Independents, and 76% of Republicans are in favor.

Congress now has an opportunity to listen to constituents. And many think it’s time to expand Medicare’s benefits and lower the program’s eligibility age, for the benefit of America’s seniors.

Bill Protects Nursing Home Residents, Providers

Published in the Pawtucket Times on June 1, 2020

This month, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) throw a bill in the legislative hopper to slow the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in nursing homes. It’s a common-sense legislative proposal and needed.

A recently released Kaiser Family Foundation study reported, “COVID-19 has had a disproportionate effect on people who reside or work in long-term care facilities, including the 1.3 million individuals in nursing homes; 800,000 in assisted living facilities; 75,000 in intermediate care facilities; and 3 million people who work in skilled nursing or residential care facilities.”

Combatting COVID-19 in Congregate Settings

With COVID-19 quickly spreading throughout the nation’s nursing homes and intermediate care facilities, Casey and Whitehouse’s legislative proposal, S. 3768, The Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act, seeks to provide needed resources to facilities to protect frail residents and staff. Residents in these facilities are among the most vulnerable because of their age and underlying medical conditions. According to an analysis conducted by Gregg Girvan for the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, as of May 22, in the 39 states that currently report such figures, 43 percent of all COVID-19 deaths have taken place in nursing homes and assisted living facilities

As more than 20,000 nursing homes residents and workers have died due to COVID-19, according to the latest reports, on May 19, 2020, Casey and Whitehouse introduced S.3768 to help states, nursing homes and intermediate care facilities put the brakes on the spreading of the deadly COVID-19. The legislative proposal, with 14 Democratic cosponsors (including Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed}, would help states implement strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in congregate settings, including through the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing and to support nursing home workers with premium pay, overtime and other essential benefits.

S. 3768 was referred to Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. As of March 30, 2020, a Congressional Budget Office cost estimate or this measure has not been received.

Days after the introduction of 25-page Senate legislative proposal, a House version (H.R. 6972) was introduced by Rep. Ana G. Eshoo (D-CA), cosponsored by Reps. Janice D. Schakowsky (D-IL), Donna E. Shalala (D-FL), Madeleine Dean (D-PA), Seth Moulton (D-MA) and David N. Cicilline (D-RI). The House bill was referred to House Energy and Commerce

“This virus spares no state, no county, no facility. The unprecedented crisis unfolding in our Nation’s nursing homes demands an immediate, extraordinary response. Reports indicate nursing home residents and workers account for roughly 1 in 4 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States,” said Casey, who serves as Ranking Member of the U.S Senate Special Committee on Aging, in a statement announcing the bill’s introduction. “The Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act would provide $20 billion in emergency funding [for staffing, testing, Personal Protective Equipment, etc.] to devise a sorely needed national, coordinated response to stem the spread of this terrible virus in nursing homes and intermediate care facilities,” notes Casey.

According to Casey, the Senate bill would also require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop guidance on cohorting best practices, including on how to safeguard resident rights. It would also instruct HHS to collect and publish data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes and intermediate care facilities, and finally fund surge teams of nurses, aides, and other critical staff to fill in at facilities where multiple residents and staff members have been infected.

“COVID-19 poses an immediate threat to the more than 1.3 million Americans, including more than 7,000 Rhode Islanders, who live in nursing homes,” says Whitehouse, noting that frontline staff across the nation are “doing heroic work under very challenging circumstances.”

“We need to get vastly more personal protective equipment and tests to nursing homes, which care for the patients who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Our legislation would also help states fund surge teams, sending additional staff reinforcements to facilities where they are needed to care for patients and prevent infection,” adds Whitehouse.

Before S. 3768 was officially introduced, in early March, Washington, DC-based AARP announced its support for the Senate proposal. “AARP supports the draft of the Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act that would help protect the health and save the lives of people in nursing homes and other facilities by supporting testing, personal protective equipment, staffing and more,” said Megan O’Reilly, Vice President of Government Affairs for AARP. “The proposal would also improve public transparency and help protect the rights of residents and their families, adds O’Reilly, calling on Congress “to act immediately to stem the loss of life and slow the spread of the virus.”

In the House Chamber, Rhode Island’s Cicilline, a member of the House Democratic Leadership as Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, has also pushed for Congressional funding to stop the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes. The fifth term Congressman has called for additional funding for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund in the next package for congregate care facilities, including nursing homes. He also signed a letter to HHS Secretary Azar and Administrator Verma, of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), urging that HHS and the CMS to ensure that a significant portion of the newly allocated $25 billion for testing in the recently passed CARES Act be utilized for testing in nursing homes and other congregate living facilities.

State-wide Efforts to Combat COVID-19 in Nursing Homes

With Governor Gina Raimondo declaring a state of emergency on March 9, 2020, with the COVID-19 arriving in Rhode Island, the deadly pandemic virus spread quickly throughout the state’s nursing homes. At press time, it has been reported that 75 percent of all related COVID-19 deaths are in nursing homes.

According to Joseph Wendelken, Public Information’s Officer for the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH), the state moved quickly to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the community and in nursing homes. He stated: “We curtailed and then prohibited visiting early on, and we have been doing extensive testing in every assisted living facility in the state. We are doing cyclical testing, meaning that we are continually testing all residents in all homes on a rotating basis. We are giving tailored infection control guidance to specific homes, and we are helping them procure additional PPE.”

Adds Wendelken, RIDOH has established two COVID-19 Specialty Nursing Homes [at Oak Hill Center in Pawtucket and Oakland Grove Health Care Center in Woonsocket] to be a COVID-19 Specialty Nursing Home. “These are centralized facilities to accept patients who are being discharged from the hospital and who are COVID-19 positive but no longer require acute-level care. This strategy allows COVID-19 positive patients leaving the hospital to receive specialized rehabilitation and step-down, post-acute care while reserving hospital beds for patients who need acute-level care,” he said.

On Smith Hill, the Rhode Island House Republican Caucus has recently called for members of the House Committee on Oversight to meet to address the increasing COVID-19 death rate in the state’s nursing and assisted living facilities.

Putting Politics Aside…

With less than 156 days until the upcoming 2020 Presidential election, will S. 3768 reach the Senate floor for a vote. Since the beginning of 2019, more than 350 House-passed bills—including hundreds that have bipartisan support—have been buried by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) in his legislative graveyard. With no Republican Senators supporting Casey and Whitehouse’s COVID-19 bill, will it even reach the Senate floor for a vote?

It’s time for McConnell, who has called himself the “grim reaper” of Democratic legislation, to lay down his deadly scythe, making the safety of millions of residents who reside in the nation’s 15,583 skilled nursing facilities a legislative priority. The GOP Senator from Kentucky, who is in a close Senate race with Democratic opponent Amy McGrath, might consider putting politics aside during a raging COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the nation to work with Senate Democrats to protect frail residents and nursing home staff. Kentucky voters might view protecting residents against COVID a bipartisan issue.