Nursing facilities gear up for October vaccination deadline

Published in RI News Today on September 20, 2021

Over a month ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) issued a Health Alert Network (HAN) Health Advisory to public health practitioners and clinicians about the urgent need to increase COVID-19 vaccination coverage across the United States to prevent surges in new infections that could increase COVID-19 related morbidity and mortality, overwhelm health care capacity, and widen existing COVID-19-related health disparities.

According to the July 27 Health Advisory, there is growing medical evidence that the Delta variant is at least twice as contagious as the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. It is reported that most cases of COVID-19 hospitalizations and death are in unvaccinated people; however, there are breakthrough infections in vaccinated people because of the surge of infections among the unvaccinated. This is a particular concern in nursing homes, where vaccinated residents are infected by unvaccinated staff.

The Biden Administration announced plans in August to require COVID-19 vaccinations for nursing home staff as a condition for those facilities to continue receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funding. Rhode Island Governor Daniel J. McKee, along with other states’ leadership, took similar steps to protect nursing home residents by requiring all healthcare 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 capitol in early August, McKee called for the new vaccine mandate (as a term of employment) to take effect.

COVID Cases Rise in Rhode Island Nursing  Homes

Coronavirus continues to increase in nursing homes, warns AARP Rhode Island in a statement issued on September 17. According to the latest data from AARP’s Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard, in the four weeks ending August 22, resident cases increasing from 0.05 to 0.34 per 100 residents and staff cases increasing from 0.11 to 0.88 per 100 residents since the mid-July report.

Nationally, cases are concentrated among the unvaccinated, and those residents were three times as likely to contract COVID-19 last month compared to residents who are fully vaccinated.

The last eight months have shown vaccines to be the most effective tool in preventing COVID-19 related deaths, says AARP Rhode Island’s statement. There were modest increases in vaccination rates during this four-week period, with 92% of Rhode Island Nursing Home residents and 76% of staff fully vaccinated as of August 22.

“This month’s dashboard underscores why all staff and residents in long-term care facilities must be vaccinated as quickly as possible,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director, Catherine Taylor. “For unvaccinated nursing home residents, their risk of an infection is back up to the levels we saw a year ago. Too many people in Rhode Island who lived and worked in nursing facilities have died from COVID-19, and no one wants to see that tragedy repeated,” said Taylor.

The AARP Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard also found over a 300% increase in RI nursing homes reporting an urgent need for PPE in the period ending August 22, with almost 10% of facilities in Rhode Island reporting they did not have sufficient PPE.

Nursing Facilities Struggling to Maintain Adequate Staffing

While the Rhode Island Health Care Association supports Governor McKee’s decision to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations across the health care continuum, says John E. Gage, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Health Care Association, representing 64 of the 77 nursing facilities in the Ocean State, nursing homes are struggling to maintain their staffing levels to meet the state’s direct care requirements, but many are struggling to maintain that level, he says, noting that next month’s deadline requiring nursing facility staff will further strain the already “precarious staffing crisis in the state’s nursing facilities”.

Gage noted that the state’s Department of Health has surveyed facilities this week regarding the number of staff that will be unable to enter facilities in two weeks because they are unvaccinated. “It is reported that nursing facilities will lose 7% of their workforce – 706 staff of 10,137 in the workforce across all disciplines,” says Gage, noting that 495 out of the 706 are clinical staff members.

According to Gage, “Rhode Island nursing facilities are ranked the fourth best state for resident vaccinations and fifth best state for staff vaccination rates in the country. He notes, when taking a look at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data released last week, in Rhode Island 92.65% of residents are fully vaccinated compared to 84.1% nationwide. As to staff, 78.99% of Rhode Island’s nursing facility staff are fully vaccinated compared to 63.7% nationwide.

Gage says, “The vaccine mandate will further add to the challenge of staff retention and recruitment. We are facing the implementation of a minimum staffing mandate to take effect 1/1/22. There’s not adequate staff available to hire, and the legislature did not provide for adequate funding to achieve the upcoming mandate”. 

Finally, Gage notes that while visitation is currently open at Rhode Island nursing facilities there are many factors that make it difficult to stop the spread of COVID-19 from staff to residents. “Our staff are members of each and every community in Rhode Island  They interact with others outside of work who may or may not be vaccinated, and many have children under the age of 12 who are not eligible for vaccination. To further complicate matters, there are breakthrough cases among those who are fully vaccinated, especially now with the prevalence of the Delta variant,” says Gage.

“Rhode Island facilities will continue to take all steps necessary to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 infections,” says Gage, noting that vaccinations are the key to eradicating this pandemic, together with the proper use of personal protective equipment.  

The AARP Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard analyzes federally reported data in four-week periods going back to June 1, 2020. Using this data, 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.

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

Time to resolve RI’s ongoing Nursing Home staffing crisis

Published in RINewsToday on April 18, 2021

The latest release of AARP’s Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard shows that both cases and deaths in nursing homes declined in the four weeks ending March 21. Although these rates are improving, chronic staffing problems in nursing homes—revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic—continue. In Rhode Island, 30% of nursing homes reported a shortage of nurses or aides, which is only fractionally better than the previous reporting period. 

AARP has come out swinging to fight for enhancing the quality of care in Rhode Island’s 104 nursing homes.

AARP Rhode Island, representing 131 members, calls for the General Assembly to ensure the quality of care for the state’s nursing home through minimum staffing standards, oversight, and access to in-person formal advocates, called long-term care Ombudsmen. The state’s the largest aging advocacy group has urged lawmakers to create a state task force on nursing home quality and safety and has pushed for rejecting immunity and holding facilities accountable when they fail to provide adequate care to residents.  It’s also crucial that Rhode Island ensures that increases in nursing homes’ reimbursement rates are spent on staff pay and to improve protections for residents, says AARP Rhode Island. 

Last December, AARP Rhode Island called on Governor Gina Raimondo to scrap Executive Order 20-21 and its subsequent reauthorizations to grant civil immunity related to COVID-19 for nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. The aging advocacy group warned that these facilities should be held responsible for providing the level of quality care that is required of them for which they are being compensated.

Rhode Island Lawmakers Attack Nursing Home Staffing Crisis

During the legislative session, the state’s nursing home staffing crisis caught the eye of Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin is a policy issue that needs to be addressed. They knew that Rhode Island ranked 41st in the nation in the number of the average hours of care nursing home residents receive, according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.  The state also has the lowest average resident-care hours per day of any New England state.

On Feb. 2, the Rode Island Senate approved S 0002, “Nursing Home Staffing and Quality Care Act” sponsored by Goodwin and nine Democratic cosponsors to address an ongoing crisis in staffing nursing homes that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.  The bill had passed unanimously in the Health and Human Services Committee, and ultimately, the full Senate gave its thumbs up to the legislative proposal by a vote of 34 to 4.  Only one Republican senator crossed the aisle and voted with the Democratic senators.

“There is a resident care crisis in our state. Staffing shortages and low wages lead to seniors and people with disabilities not receiving the care they desperately need. The pandemic, of course, has exponentially increased the demands of the job and exacerbated patients’ needs. We must confront this problem head-on before our nursing home system collapses,” said Sponsor Senator Goodwin (D-Dist. 1, Providence).

The legislation would establish a minimum standard of 4.1 hours of resident care per day, the federal recommendation for quality care long endorsed by health care experts including the American Nurses Association, the Coalition of Geriatric Nursing Organizations, and the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care. The bill, which the Senate also approved last year, has been backed by Raise the Bar on Resident Care, a coalition of advocates for patient care, and the Rhode Island’s Department of Health (RIDOH).

The bill would also secure funding to raise wages for caregivers to recruit and retain a stable and qualified workforce. Short staffing drives high turnover in nursing homes. Not only does high turnover create undue stress and burnout for remaining staff, but it also diverts valuable resources to recruit, orient, and train new employees and increases reliance on overtime and agency staff.  Low wages are a significant driver of the staffing crisis. The median wage for a CNA in Rhode Island is less than $15, and $1/hour lower than the median wage in both Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The legislation would also invest in needed training and skills enhancement for caregivers to provide care for patients with increasing acuity and complex health care needs.

At press time, the companion bill (2021-H-5012), sponsored by Reps. Scott A. Slater (D-Dist.10, Providence) and William W. O’Brien (D-Dist. 54) was considered by House Finance Committee and recommended for further study.

RIDOH’s Director Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH says the state agency “supports the thoughtfulness of the provisions included in the legislation and welcomes dialogue with its sponsors, advocates, and the nursing home facility industry regarding methods to sustain the necessary conditions associated with the intent of the bill.”

Alexander-Scott states that “RIDOH takes its charge seriously to keep nursing home residents and is supportive of efforts to update standards of care to better serve Rhode Islanders in nursing facilities, as well as increase resident and staff satisfaction within nursing facilities.”

Scott Fraser, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Health Care Association (RIHCA), a nonprofit group representing 80 percent of Rhode Island’s nursing homes, says that “staffing shortages are directly traceable to the chronic lack of Medicaid funding from past governors. Period.” 

According to Fraser, state law requires Medicaid to be funded at a national inflation index, usually averaging around 3%. “Up until this year, previous governors have slashed this amount resulting in millions of dollars in losses to our homes.  Thankfully, Governor McKee is proposing to fully fund the Medicaid Inflation Index this year,” he says.

RIHCA opposes the mandatory minimum staffing the legislation now being considered by the Rhode Island General Assembly, says Fraser, warning that its passage would result in facilities closing throughout the state. “No other state has adopted such a high standard,” he says, noting that the Washington, DC-based American Health Care Association estimates that this legislation would cost Rhode Island facilities at least $75 million to meet this standard and the need to hire more than 800 employees. 

Fraser calls for the “Nursing Home Staffing and Quality Care Act” to be defeated, noting that the legislation does not contain any provisions for funding.  “Medically, there is no proof that mandating a certain number of hours of direct care results in any better health outcomes.  This is an unfunded legislative mandate. If homes are forced to close, not only would residents be forced to find a new place for their care, but hundreds of workers would also be forced out of work,” he says.

Goodwin does not believe that mandating minimum staffing requirements in nursing homes will force nursing homes to close. She noted that the legislation is aimed at ensuring nursing home residents receive adequate care and that Rhode Island is the only state in the northeast without such a standard.

“There is an un-level playing field in nursing home staffing in Rhode Island,” charges Goodwin, noting that many facilities staff 4.1 hours per day, or close to it, while others only provide two hours of care per day. “In either case, the overwhelming majority of well-staffed and poorly-staffed nursing homes remain highly profitable,” she says. 

According to Goodwin, the lack of staffing and certified nursing assistants (CNAs) is due to unreasonable workloads and low pay. “RIDOH’s CAN registry makes it clear that retention of these workers is a big issue. This is in part because they can make as much money – or more – in a minimum wage profession with much less stress,” she adds, stressing that “The Nursing Home Staffing and Quality Care Act” directly addresses these staffing challenges.

One quick policy fix is to provide nursing home operators with adequate Medicaid reimbursement to pay for increased staffing.  Lawmakers must keep McKee’s proposed increase of nursing home rates pursuant to statute, requiring a market-based increase on Oct. 2021, in the state’s FY 2020 budget. The cost is estimated to be $9.6 million.

With the House panel recommending that Slater’s companion measure ((2021-H-5012) to be held for further study, Goodwin’s chances of seeing her legislation becoming law dwindles as the Rhode Island Assembly’s summer adjournment begins to loom ever closer. There’s probably no reason to insist that a bill be passed in order to have a study commission, so this could be appointed right away if there is serious intent to solve this problem.

Slater’s legislation may well be resurrected in the final days of the Rhode Island General Assembly, behind the closed doors when “horse-trading” takes place between House and Senate leadership.  If this doesn’t occur, either the House or Senate might consider creating a Task Force, bringing together nursing home operators, health care professionals and staff officials, to resolve the state’s nursing home staffing crisis. 

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.