Senate Aging Committee Tackles COVID-19’s Devastating Impact on Seniors

Published in the Woonsocket Call on May 24, 2020

In the midst of bipartisan bickering on Capitol Hill as to what should be included in the fifth coronavirus (COVID-19) stimulus package, the Senate Aging Committee holds Congress’s first hearing in Senate Russell Office Building 301 on the disproportionate toll the COVID pandemic is having on the nation’s seniors, particularly those who reside in nursing homes.

Adults ages 65 years and older represent two out of every five hospitalizations and eight out of every 10 deaths from the virus. The 1.5 million nursing home residents and seniors residing in group care settings (including assisted living facilities) are especially at risk. Nationwide, residents and workers in nursing homes and other long-term care settings represent more than one-third of all COVID-19 deaths. According to reports, to date more than 34,000 nursing home residents have died from COVID-19.

COVID-19’s Deadly Toll on Seniors

The Senate hearing, “Caring for Seniors Amid the COVID-19 Crisis,” held on Thursday, March 21, 2020, explored what can be done to better protect this vulnerable population. Over two hours, Senators heard testimony from a panel of experts who are supporting older adults in hospitals, nursing homes, home health settings, and the community. (Due to the limited access to the Capitol Complex, the public is only able to view the morning hearing live on the committee’s website at https://www.aging.senate.gov/hearings/caring-for-seniors-amid-the-covid-19-crisis.

“COVID-19 has brought tremendous hardship and tragedy, placing a heavy burden on the frontline workers, straining our healthcare and distribution systems, and imposing a deadly toll on our seniors in particular,” said Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), who chairs the Senate Aging Committee. “Those in nursing homes and congregate care centers are especially at risk. Nationwide, nursing home residents represent one-third of all coronavirus deaths. In Maine, the toll on nursing home residents is even higher,” adds Collins.

“Our nation is facing the greatest public health crisis it has seen in a century. This terrible virus is causing death and destruction at lightning speed, especially among older Americans who are most vulnerable for complications from COVID-19,” added Ranking Member Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania). “We have added unprecedented amounts of funding to purchase personal protective equipment, testing and ensure seniors in the community have access to home and community-based services that keep them out of congregate settings, but this is not nearly enough. We cannot stop working we cannot stop legislating, we cannot stop appropriating dollars to help our seniors,” says Casey.

“This unprecedented time calls for equally unprecedented action. The Administration has to do more and Congress has to do more to help our seniors and their families at every turn,” said Casey. During the hearing, the Senator highlighted his bill (S.3768), the Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act, introduced with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island, which would help mitigate the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on nursing homes by helping states purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing and fund premium pay, overtime and other essential benefits for nursing home workers.

Taking a Look at Universal Testing of Nursing Home Residents

Collins directed her first question at the hearing to Dr. Tamara Konetzka, a professor of health services research at the University of Chicago, who has conducted research on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on nursing home residents and staff. She asked Dr. Konetzka to explain how universal testing can protect residents and eventually allow family members to safely visit their loved ones.

“Dr. Konetzka, I want to have you expand a little bit more on what we can do,” said Collins. “I believe that you recommended universal testing for every nursing home resident and staff, which I think is a good idea and have been recommending. How often, however, would you have to do that, and would that allow family members who have been tested to finally be able to visit their loved ones?”

“[I]t is very important to test all residents, and not wait until residents are…symptomatic, because by then it’s too late,” replied Dr. Konetzka. “[W]hat I’ve heard from geriatricians is generally weekly [testing] would be good or at least biweekly, so that residents can then be separated and the transmission can be stopped.”

Collins also emphasized that testing was needed at every long-term care facility, since even the highest rated nursing homes have been susceptible to outbreaks.

At the hearing, Senator Collins called for the release of additional health care provider funding that was made available through the CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act.

“[T]he ratings by CMS, the number of stars, has not proven to be a reliable indicator of which nursing homes are safest in this environment. And indeed, one of the worst outbreaks in Maine was at a nursing home that had five stars,” remarked Collins. “[W]hen we hear the statistics, which are so devastating…my heart just goes out not only to these patients, but to their families and to the staff of nursing homes and other assisted living facilities, congregate care settings. They’re all praying that COVID-19 does not find its way into their facility,”she said.

As the chief infectious disease specialist for New York University, Dr. Mark J. Mulligan oversees the treatment of COVID-19 patients at the University’s health system hospitals. At the hearing, he explained that seniors are at increased risk due to aging-related decline of the immune system as well as chronic conditions such as cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes, and that older adults who reside in nursing homes are the most vulnerable.

Medical Countermeasures to Combat COVID-19

Dr. Mulligan provided an overview of the medical countermeasures under development—diagnostics, monoclonal antibodies, and potential treatments such as remdesivir.

“For physicians, scientists, and leaders, the virus has continued to humble us. There’s so much we don’t know yet about diagnosis, prevention, and treatment,” said Dr. Mulligan. “The nurses and doctors I have worked with are incredibly dedicated and caring, but they have not had the medical countermeasures needed to effectively help many vulnerable seniors who have died of this disease,” he adds.

Finally, the final panelist, Dr. Steven Landers, the President and CEO of Visiting Nurse Association Health Group who oversees a team of 3,000 caregivers that cares for 9,000 people daily, provided a home health perspective on the public health crisis. According to Landers, maintaining this a supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is both challenging and expensive. “We are using over 17,000 surgical masks and over 3,500 N95 masks each week and we are also using thousands of isolation gowns, gloves, goggles and face shields. We have had to pay 7-10 times the usual prices and reach out to vendors all over the world, vendors who we couldn’t fully vet and verify, sometimes just hoping that shipments would arrive,” he say, calling on Congress to find ways prioritize home health and hospice agencies getting needed PPE.

“I have never seen the system so strained, but I also have never felt prouder of the skilled, compassionate, and courageous people I work with,” he said.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

Report on Falls, Injuries Released

PUblished in Woonsocket Call on October 20, 2019

Last Wednesday morning in Dirksen Senate Office Building 562, the U.S. Special Committee on Aging held a hearing to put a spotlight on the economic consequences on falls and to explore ways to prevent and reduce falls and related injuries. At the one hour and 55-minute hearing, titled “Falls Prevention: National, State, and Local Level Solutions to Better Support Seniors,” its annual report, Falls Prevention: Solutions to Better Support Seniors, was released.

According to the Senate Aging Committee, falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries among older adults that incur $50 billion annually in total medical costs. That number is expected to double to $100 billion by 2030, and the majority of these costs are borne by Medicare and Medicaid.

“Falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries for older Americans, often leading to a downward spiral with serious consequences. In addition to the physical and emotional trauma of falls, the financial toll is staggering,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who chairs the Senate Aging Committee. “Now is the time, and now is our opportunity, to take action to prevent falls. Our bipartisan report includes key recommendations to take steps to reduce the risk of falls,” the Maine Senator noted in an Oct. 16 statement.

Pushing for Positive Change in Releasing Fall Report

“We must dispel our loved ones of the stigma associated with falling so that they can get the help they need to age in place – where they want to be – in their homes and communities,” said Sen. Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-Pa.). “I am hopeful that our work over the past year will propel the research community to do more, get more dollars invested into supporting home modifications and encourage more older adults to be active,” said the Special Committee’s Ranking Member.

At the hearing, the Committee unveiled a comprehensive report that provides evidence-based recommendations on ways to reduce the risk of falling. The Committee received input from multiple federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Food and Drug Administration. In addition, approximately 200 respondents representing falls prevention advocates, hospitals, community organizations, home health agencies, and others shared their expertise on this issue.

The 34-page Aging Committee’s report made recommendations as how to raise awareness about falls-related risks, prevention and recovery at the national, state and local levels. It suggested ways of improving screening and referrals for those at risk of falling so that individuals receive the preventive care necessary to avoid a fall or recover after one. It noted ways of targeting modifiable risk factors, including increasing the availability of resources for home safety evaluations and modifications, so that older adults can remain in their homes and communities. Finally, it called for reducing polypharmacy so that health care providers and patients are aware of any potential side effects that could contribute to a fall.

Increasing Medicare Funding for Bone Density Testing

In an opening statement, Collins noted that falls are often times attributed to uneven sidewalks or icy stairs, medications, medical reasons or muscle strength. But one key cause of falling is osteoporosis, which can be especially dangerous for people who are completely unaware that they suffer from low bone density, she says.

According to Collins, although Medicare covers bone density testing, reimbursement rates have been slashed by 70 percent since 2006, resulting in 2.3 million fewer women being tested. “As a result, it is estimated that more than 40,000 additional hip fractures occur each year, which results in nearly 10,000 additional deaths,” she said, noting legislation, Increasing Access to Osteoporosis Testing Beneficiaries Act that she has introduced with Sen. Ben Cardin,” to reverse these harmful reimbursement cuts.

Casey stated, “I am particularly interested in sharing this report with the relevant agencies and learning how the recommendations will be implemented. Not just put in a report. Implemented,” adds Casey.

Peggy Haynes, MPA, Senior Director, of Portland-based Healthy Aging, MaineHealth that offers A Matter of Balance, an evidence-based falls prevention program, came to the Senate hearing to share details about its impact. “The health care community has a critical role to play in fall prevention – beginning with screening for falls, assessing fall risk factors, reviewing medications and referring to both medical and community-based fall prevention interventions. Our health system is focused on preventing falls in every care setting,” says Haynes.

“The need for a range of community-based options led MaineHealth to be a founding member of the Evidence Based Leadership Collaborative, promoting the increased delivery of multiple evidence-based programs that improve the health and well-being of diverse populations,” adds Haynes.

Haynes noted that older participants attend eight two-hour sessions to help them reduce their fear of falling, assisting them to set realistic goals for increasing their activity and changing their home environment to reduce fall risk factors. A Matter of Balance is offered in 46 states reaching nearly 100,000 seniors.

Virginia Demby, an 84-year-old visually-impaired retired nurse who is an advocate for Community and Older Adults, in Chester, Pennsylvania, came to the Senate hearing to support the importance of fall prevention programs. Despite living with low vision, Demby remains physically active by participating in exercises classes for older adults at the Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Chester. She is an advocate for older adults and now helps the local senior center wellness manager recruit more seniors to take falls prevention classes and find new places to offer the classes.

Kathleen A. Cameron, MPH, Senior Director, Center for Healthy Aging, of the Arlington, Virginia-based National Council on Aging, discussed the work of the National Falls Prevention Resource Center, which helps to support evidence-based falls prevention programs across the nation and highlighted policy solutions to reduce falls risk.

Finally, Elizabeth Thompson, chief executive officer, Arlington, Virginia-based National Osteoporosis Foundation, testified that bone loss and osteoporosis are fundamental underlying contributors to the worst consequences of falls among older Americans: broken and fractured bones. Osteoporotic fractures are responsible for more hospitalizations than heart attacks, strokes and breast cancer combined, she noted.

For details of the Senate Aging Committee report, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/SCA_Falls_Report_2019.pdf.

Senators Collins, Casey, Pushing for Reauthorization of Older Americans Act

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 19, 2019

With the Older Americans Act (OAA) scheduled to expire on September 30, 2019, the U.S. Special Senate Committee on Aging puts the spotlight on the importance of this critical law to older American’s, calling for its reauthorization.

Enacted in 1965, the OAA helps more than 11 million seniors age in their communities by funding programs that support grandparents raising grandchildren, reduce social isolation, provide congregate or home-delivered meals and offer respite care among other services.
OAA was last reauthorized in 2016 for a period of three years.

Bipartisan Push in Senate to Reauthorize OAA

While the Senate Aging Committee does not have legislative jurisdiction over OAA, the panel traditionally has put attention on the OAA by holding hearings or special events at the start of any reauthorization process. And the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee – Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Robert Casey (D-Pa.)—have taken an especially keen interest in this year’s OAA reauthorization process. The Senators are leading a bipartisan coalition of Senators pushing for reauthorization, which includes Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wa) as well as Senators Mike Enlzi (R-Wyo.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

In Collin’s opening statement, she pledged to “get across the finish line, on time, a robust and bipartisan Older Americans Act that will strengthen support for its bread and butter programs, while providing more flexibility for states to meet local needs.”

At the Senate Aging hearing, Collins says she plans to focus on five priority areas in the reauthorization of OOA, specifically family caregivers, nutrition, social isolation, transportation and elder justice. “By enriching the lives of seniors, the Older Americans Act improves the lives of all Americans,” says the Maine Senator, kicking off the two hour and 26-minute hearing, aptly titled, “The Older Americans Act: Protecting and Supporting Seniors as they Age.”

“The Older Americans Act is a shining example of a federal policy that works. Every $1 invested into the Older Americans Act generates $3 to help seniors stay at home through low cost, community-based services,” says Collins.

“The Older Americans Act reminds us who we are as a country. It represents our commitment to the generations who made us who we are today. And, it lifts up the seniors who need our help the most, added Casey in his opening statement.

Before the May 18 hearing, Casey noted that he had reached out to 34 Area Agencies on Aging, representing 60 percent of the counties in his home state, for their feedback about OAA’s effectiveness in delivering services to older Pennsylvanians. He asked these two questions: “How is the OAA currently working?” and “How should this important law be strengthened?”

“In every city and every town, the aging network said that there is no match for the high-quality services that senior centers and Area Agencies on Aging provide to older Pennsylvanians. The OAA programs support Pennsylvanians and their caregivers by providing meals, respite and protection from fraud and abuse. And importantly, the OAA also helps seniors age in the location of their choice, which of course is most often their homes and communities.”

Senate Panel Witnesses Give Thumbs-up to OAA

Larry Gross, the chief executive officer of the Southern Maine Agency on Aging shared with the attending Senators his more than four decades of experience serving seniors in both urban and rural areas. He explained how OAA bolsters nutrition programs, supports family caregivers, reduces social isolation and addresses elder justice. He highlighted a partnership with Maine Medical Center showing that home-delivered meals reduce hospital readmissions, and discussed innovations that he has led to improve senior nutrition and build community.

Faith Lewis, a great-grandparent from Simpson, Pennsylvania, shared her personal experience raising her 5-year-old great-granddaughter and the importance of OAA program support that assist grand families like hers. She receives support through the National Family Caregiver Support Program and regularly attends a support group for grandparents raising grandchildren that is hosted by her local Area Agency on Aging.

Lance Robertson, the Administrator & Assistant Secretary for Aging at the administration for Community Living, gave an overview of OAA, including its history, sustainability, and variability across states and communities. He shared background and data on how OAA has helped millions of seniors to age in their local communities. He also discussed his agency’s mission to connect people to resources, protect rights and prevent abuse, expand employment opportunities, support family caregivers and strengthen aging networks.

Finally, Richard Prudom, the Secretary of Florida’s Department of Elder Affairs, Mr. Prudom talked about his work with his state’s 11 Area Agencies on Aging. He offered a state perspective on interfacing both with the administration for Community Living as well as with the Area Agencies on Aging to develop programs that meet the needs of communities. He focused on priorities in supporting family caregivers, advancing senior nutrition, combating elder abuse and addressing disaster preparedness.

AARP Talks About Impact of OAA Programs

Wendy Fox-Grage, Senior Strategic Policy adviser at the Washington, DC-based AARP, in a Feb 19 blog posting, says that despite “woeful inadequacy of current funding, OAA enables 11 million older Americans to live independently. Recent evaluations confirm the positive impact on the Act’s nutrition and family caregiver program, she says.

As to evaluating the impact of OAA’s nutrition programs, Grage says that forty-two percent of congregate meal participants and 61 percent of home delivered meal participants would skip meals or eat less in the absence of these programs. Congregate meal participants are also less likely to be admitted to nursing homes, and congregate meal participants who live alone are less likely to be admitted to hospital than nonparticipant, she says.

As to caregiving, Grage noted that family caregivers received four hours or more of respite care per week reported a decline in burden over time and those who received at least one education/training, counseling, or support group session experienced an increase in self-reported confidence over time.

AARP joins Senators Collins and Casey’s call on Congress to reauthorize the Older Americans Act before the end of September. OAA’s 11 million beneficiaries, 700,000 caregivers, and providers in the nation’s aging network — consisting of the federal Administration on Aging, State Units on Aging, local Area Agencies on Aging, and local service providers – also wait for Congress to make its move and reauthorize the Act.