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Pa. nursing homes must get emergency coronavirus funding from Wolf, Legislature: Adam Marles

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Like most Pennsylvanians, our commonwealth’s nursing home providers watch Secretary of Health Rachel Levine’s daily updates with hope, but also with concern as we hear the latest numbers of nursing facility and personal care home residents who have tested positive for COVID-19.

As this battle for the health of Pennsylvania continues, we think it’s important to provide an update on what our members are doing — and how state lawmakers and the Wolf administration can help.

We’re proud of the professionals working around the clock to care for older adults. They’re giving everything and risking their lives to help people. Their bravery is inspiring, and their work has been effective.

Their success has gone largely unnoticed. More than 75 percent of our nursing and personal care home facilities have yet to have a positive test for COVID-19. That’s remarkable considering this virus thrives in communal settings and among those with weakened immune systems and underlying conditions.

LeadingAge PA recently took its own step to help providers, forming a partnership with fellow nonprofit ECRI Institute to help protect and improve the safety of residents during the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal is to bring actionable, trusted educational guidance to leaders of nonprofit continuing care, skilled nursing, and home care organizations to minimize risk and protect the safety of seniors and staff.

For decades, ECRI has worked closely with aging care communities in Pennsylvania and throughout the nation on emergency preparedness, disaster planning and resident safety. In fact, it’s well known to the Wolf administration. Earlier this month, the administration announced ECRI was selected to support the Pennsylvania Department of Health with individualized infection control and prevention assistance for Pennsylvania’s aging care facilities.

As we continue to battle this pandemic on the front lines, our partners in state government can do several things to help.

We applaud the support of hospitals by Wolf and the General Assembly. The governor is providing $774 million in aid, while members of the General Assembly are introducing various proposals to increase support.

For nursing facilities, the much-anticipated surge already exists and has shown no signs of slowing. It’s important to remember and acknowledge that medical care doesn’t just happen in our hospitals. It’s happening every day in hundreds of Pennsylvania’s long-term care facilities. Caring for Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable population, our facilities are the epicenter of this pandemic.

As we’ve detailed for the last several years, the commonwealth’s support of nursing facilities with appropriate Medicaid funding has not kept up with expenses. Over the past 15 years, Pennsylvania has averaged less than a 1 percent annual increase in nursing facility Medicaid funding, yet the cost to provide care has gone up a staggering 33 percent. That means that nonprofits are losing $80, every day, for every person they serve who relies on Medicaid. These are real dollars that could’ve been invested in additional staff, resident care, and supplies.

But the past is past. We need to do the right things now because lives depend on it.

It was right to support hospitals, and it’s right to support our nursing facilities with $290 million in immediate financial support because they are at the epicenter of this struggle in Pennsylvania. This is a nonpartisan issue that could be done relatively quickly so we can get dollars flowing to improve care and safety. Thankfully, state Sen. Pat Browne has introduced legislation to provide $200 million in emergency funding toward this goal.

The funding would help nursing facilities hire more staff, acquire test kits, and purchase critical personal protective equipment and other resources necessary to defeat COVID-19 in communities — and prevent it from appearing in others. The state has worked hard to provide facilities with PPE, but the demand is overwhelming. Our staff has done a remarkable job cleaning and reusing supplies when possible. Some, unfortunately, have had to resort to wearing ponchos and garbage bags. That’s why new investments in PPE to protect our staff — and residents — are a must.

Without this funding support we can say without hesitation:

• Pennsylvania’s nursing facilities will not have the capacity, test kits, PPE, or staffing to handle the long-term demands this historic COVID-19 pandemic requires. They cannot be afterthought in our commonwealth’s health care system.

• Wolf also should take an important step right now to protect Pennsylvania health care professionals by issuing an executive order to provide civil immunity during this pandemic. They’re putting their lives at risk every day, and some have tested positive for the virus. They shouldn’t have to worry about lawsuits as they provide care to residents.

• Without emergency funding and protection, the reality is that some of our highest quality nursing facilities will be forced to close, and the skilled staff caring for those residents will join the astoundingly high unemployment rate in Pennsylvania. Even more critical are all of the lives that will be lost as a result of inadequate funding to provide the necessary care and safety to these facilities.

Adam Marles is the president and CEO of LeadingAge PA, a trade association representing more than 360 nonprofit senior housing, health care and community services across Pennsylvania. These providers serve more than 75,000 older Pennsylvanians and employ more than 50,000 caregivers on a daily basis.