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Nursing Homes & COVID-19 Deaths: Who Is To Blame?

Nursing Homes & COVID-19 Deaths: Who Is To Blame? Image

Although nursing home residents are less than one percent of the total US population, according to a report in the Minnesota Star Tribune, they account for more than 40 percent or approximately 45,500 of the US 115,000 COVID-19 deaths. Seema Verma, the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), asserts that nursing homes following federal infection control guidelines were largely able to contain the coronavirus.

Harvard researcher David Grabowski, a member of a nonpartisan commission, advising Congress about Medicare, states that "The federal government needs to own this issue," about the need for federal efforts to routinely test nursing home staff and residents for COVID-19 and make more protective gear available. Grabowski agrees with other advocates for the elderly that the federal government has not provided consistent virus testing and sufficient protective equipment to nursing homes, its staff, and residents.

In this Presidential election year, the stakes could not be higher to garner support from older voters. Partisan overtones affect the discussion and subsequent policies to guide safer nursing home outcomes from the ravages of COVID-19. The blame game is on between political parties fighting for votes and states legally protecting health care workers and facilities from coronavirus lawsuits by residents or their families.

The Trump administration deflects accountability by criticizing nursing home facilities with low federal ratings for infection control and a handful of Democratic governors, New York in particular, who mandated that nursing homes accept recovering coronavirus patients. The number two House Republican, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, states that this NY policy, and other states with similar policies, "ended up being a death sentence." Verma echoes the nursing homes with low federal rating criticism, saying CMS has data equating low safety ratings with outbreaks of COVID-19. Several academic researchers dispute this data citing their research has found no such link. Amid the finger-pointing, shamefully, more vulnerable senior nursing home residents are dying because of the coronavirus.

In agreement with other academic researchers, Harvard's David Grabowski opined that neither state policies nor proverbial bad apples among nursing homes were responsible for driving the coronavirus outbreaks. The reason is simply because of the virus's nature, which can spread via individuals displaying no symptoms and do not feel unwell. The illness's very nature indicates it is already spread throughout communities. Without routine testing, nursing home staff can unknowingly bring COVID-19 into a facility where it then spreads easily among frail residents living in tight quarters. Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar of the Associated Press quotes Grabowski, "The secret weapon behind COVID is that is spreads in the absence of any symptoms," Grabowski told lawmakers at a recent briefing. "If COVID is in a community where staff lives, it is soon to be in the facility where they work."

Advocacy group Justice in Aging's long-term care expert Eric Carlson cites the lack of federal coordination as impeding the ability to identify people who are infected by and require care for the coronavirus. Other advocates agree that the White House directive for the testing of all residents and staff has had an uneven response, accounting for why some facilities suffer higher rates of infection than others. The Associated Press report from the end of May 2020 concurs with these opinions reporting "White House goal on testing nursing homes unmet."

Meanwhile, at CMS, administrator Verma believes her agency has provided necessary safety guidelines, COVID-19 reporting requirements, and Medicare payment for testing residents since the outset of the virus. She continues that states have the money required from the federal government to support the nursing home staff's testing. Let's hope that is the case, as the nursing home industry reports one-time testing for every resident and staffer would cost 440 million dollars.

The coronavirus pandemic is not going to go away. New spikes of cases across the country are being reported and not even considered the "second wave" of infection that many experts anticipate. Third-ranking House Democrat Representative and chairman of a special panel on the coronavirus pandemic James Clyburn of South Carolina seems to match wisdom with temperance about the finger-pointing saying that the crisis in nursing homes should not be a partisan issue. Instead, stating, "Nursing home residents have died from the coronavirus in states governed by Republicans and Democrats, in big cities and in small towns, in rural and urban communities." Capitol Hill law and policymakers seem to be very adept at identifying problems but slow in resolving them. In the meantime, our vulnerable senior nursing home population and their families are paying the price.

We help families with loved ones in a nursing home deal with a variety of issues. If you have a loved one in a nursing home, please don’t hesitate to reach out to see how we can help.And if you are outside of Florida, please contact an experienced Elder Law Attorney (preferably one that is Board Certified in Elder Law) to assist you.  

Jason A. Penrod is only the 20th attorney to be Board Certified as an Elder Law Expert by the Florida Bar and the National Elder Law Foundation.  He is the founder of Family Elder Law (www.familyelderlaw.com) which has offices in Lakeland, Lake Wales, and Sebring, Florida.

 

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