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Congress Investigates Nursing Homes Amidst Covid-19

We’ve all heard it more than 1,000 times in recent months, wear your masks, wash your hands frequently, wear disposable gloves to minimize the chance of contacting or spreading the virus association with Covid-19.

Yet despite that guidance from medical and government officials including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases,federal and state governments refuse to pick up the tab for personal protective equipment or PPE, needed by front line essential medical workers.

When the pandemic struck, so did the profiteers. There was little access and funding for hospitals, doctors, nursing homes and home health care agencies to acquire adequate supplies of surgical masks, gloves, gowns and face shields. It led to panic and price spikes, with everyone trying to acquire any inventory available.

From the prospective of an emergency or intensive care nurse, paramedic or emergency medical technician, it takes on even greater significance, given their all-day, occupational exposure to viruses.

In New York City, vocal leaders of the FDNY’s EMS workers union, Local 2507 spoke out of the lack of PPE available to them from the City and even complained of safety protocols that were watered down as the weeks progressed, simply because city leadership was unprepared with adequate supply when the nearly 100-day crisis struck there, causing emergency responses to soar and hospital emergency rooms to overflow.

In regards to the risk of being exposed to the virus, Oren Barzilay president of New York’s FDNY Emergency Medical Service and Paramedics union said their workforce is, “ordinary people with an extraordinary passion for helping others, but we are not immune to this virus. We are not superheroes and are frightfully aware of potentially exposing our families as well.” He added, “EMS responders will do whatever it takes to save lives, even when the personal protective equipment and supplies we require to do our job are in limited supply.”

Of its 4,500-member workforce, at one point over 700 showed symptoms and had to be quarantined, over 200 tested positive and five lost their lives from the virus, and two committed suicide from the stress.

With all that is taking place, in Congress, leaders established the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis to look into problems across the nation being reported, and how better preparation and federal guidelines could be addressed for the current and future situations.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the Subcommittee’s purpose is to “ensure that the federal response is based on the best possible science and guided by health experts — and that the money invested is not being exploited by profiteers and price gougers.”

With medical workers lacking sufficient PPE, thankfully groups such as the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association swooped in to donate over 600,000 masks, and that state’s television and film industry set fabricators, costume designers – via the New York Production Alliance -began designing, manufacturing and donating much needed PPE to fill the need.

House Coronavirus Subcommittee Chairman, Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina expressed his own concern and frustration, “The Subcommittee is concerned that lax oversight by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the federal government’s failure to provide testing supplies and personal protective equipment to nursing homes and long-term care facilities may have contributed to the spread of the coronavirus and the deaths of more than 40,000 Americans in these facilities,” Clyburn wrote. “Despite CMS’s broad legal authority, the agency has largely deferred to states, local governments, and for-profit nursing homes to respond to the coronavirus crisis.”

The Subcommittee has since dug deeper and announced an inquiry into the nursing home sector’s Covid-19 response. It sent official inquiry letters to some of the nation’s largest nursing providers, including: Genesis HealthCare, Life Care Centers of America, Ensign Group, SavaSeniorCare and Consulate Health Care, demanding explanations for each’s response, preparation and handling of patients in their care during the COVID-19 crisis.

Congress is also demanding details of the ownership and organizational structures, along with detailed lists of various long-term care facilities they own and operate. They also want to know about confirmed or suspected Covid cases at facilities, supply information about PPE, complaint information, compensation for executives, and revenues.

As the Coronavirus clouds over nursing homes became darkened, Congress also looked, although in a more friendly manner at those health workers and providers who assist older patients who opt for nursing care in their own homes.

For a second time since it began taking testimony, the Subcommittee invited Lori Ames, Home Healthcare Workers of America (HHWA) National Secretary-Treasurer to present her members point of view. Like the opinion of the FDNY EMS’ leader, she said, “We can provide the home health aides, but they need to be protected from the virus and that requires the federal government’s help with additional funds to help pay for PPE.”

Among its workforce, it counted over 540 positive Covid-19 cases, with more than 360 others showing symptom and 11 who perished from the insidious virus.

Despite this, her testimony explained that under federal and state reimbursement guidelines, home health care agencies cannot be reimbursed for PPE, nor for overtime wages, and for transportation costs for over 20,000 of her members who were necessitated to avoid public transportation to limit the risk of exposure to the virus. When you have 800 from your workforce either with Coronavirus or quarantined for showing symptoms, someone needs to fill those shifts, and care for the patients and in such situations when workers are sometimes going round the clock or covering for others ill, overtime wages can be necessary.

The third-party insurers the federal and state governments pay to administer home care programs simply to pay costs for any of these necessities mandated by the pandemic.

“Home healthcare aides and agencies need to be paid to cover these expenses,” Ames said. “In order for that to happen we need comprehensive legislation that enables agencies to cover additional expenses brought on by Covid-19.”

“Even after the coronavirus pandemic arrived, home healthcare aides have continued to work, day-in and day-out, caring for older adults, the homebound, and individuals with serious physical and cognitive disabilities, who depend on these highly dedicated professionals to provide care,” she said. “Our work not only gives our patients a better quality of life when compared to nursing homes, but it also saves the Medicare system tens-of-billions of dollars annually, while continually showing better patient health outcomes.”

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