In the torrent of news coverage about COVID-19, the plight of seniors does not always receive the priority it deserves.  Older people are suffering disproportionately – not only because they are more vulnerable to the virus – but because of the federal government’s apparent inability to provide the testing and data necessary to slow the infection rate in nursing homes.  This week, some concerned members of Congress took action.

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) has introduced the Quality of Care for Nursing Home Residents Act of 2020, which the National Committee has enthusiastically endorsed.  Among other things, the legislation would require all skilled nursing facilities to:

*Have a full-time infection interventionist on staff;

*Regularly test residents and staff;

*Provide enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for all employees;

*Offer at least two weeks of paid sick leave to each employee

*Facilitate virtual visits for residents and their family members.

This bill offers a health and social lifeline to millions of seniors confined in nursing homes, isolated from friends and family, falling ill and in some cases dying – or living in constant fear of both.  Meanwhile, the Trump administration does not even have comprehensive data on the pandemic’s impact on nursing home residents, despite a promise on April 19th from CMS administrator Seema Verma that the government “would begin tracking outbreaks and deaths at long-term care facilities nationwide — and publish the numbers for everyone to see.”

“More than two weeks and 13,000 long-term care deaths later, the federal government still has not tallied the number of nursing homes that have had outbreaks nationwide or the number of residents who have died. And the data is still weeks away from being made public, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, the federal agency that oversees nursing homes.” – NBC News, 5/8/20

As NBC News reports, this is not an academic matter.  The administration’s failure to act expeditiously is enabling the virus to spread more rapidly in nursing homes, and “hampering officials’ ability to target hot spots and send additional resources where they are needed.”  Skilled nursing facilities also are not receiving crucial Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) quickly enough to adequately protect patients and staff.

Some 1.3 million Americans currently reside in skilled nursing facilities across the country – with roughly 3 million employees caring for them.  As of April 23rd, nursing homes in 36 states had reported fatalities from COVID, including residents and staff.   According to Kaiser Family Foundation executive vice president Larry Levitt, skilled nursing facilities account for more than 50% of all COVID deaths across at least 13 states.  In some states, he says, the number is closer to two thirds.  Our parents and grandparents and their caretakers in skilled nursing facilities desperately need the kind of rescue that Rep. Schakowsky’s bill offers.

In a larger sense, the pandemic has shone a harsh light on fundamental problems with the availability and affordability of long-term care for seniors. The National Committee has long advocated that older Americans should be able to live as independently as possible in their homes and communities – avoiding institutional care when feasible. Yet, a system where millions of seniors must impoverish themselves in order to obtain skilled nursing care coverage from Medicaid – or where their families must drain their savings to cover long-term care expenses – is one that’s broken and must be repaired.

The nation needs a federal long-term care insurance program so that every senior who needs skilled nursing care can receive it.  Medicare and Medicaid must be strengthened – not slashed, as the Trump administration and its allies in Congress have repeatedly proposed. Wages and benefits for those who provide in-home or institutional care must be improved.

For these changes to happen, society’s attitudes toward older Americans and their caregivers must evolve.  Seniors, who contribute so much to the economy and to our quality of life, must be valued as much as younger citizens – even if they are ill, disabled, or not always in sight.  We must reject the inhumane logic of some of our leaders, who actually have suggested that seniors’ lives be sacrificed for the sake of the economy during this crisis.

Only with a major attitude adjustment will we have a country that treats its senior citizens justly – and reduces the toll that a pandemic like COVID takes on our older loved ones and those who risk their own lives to stand by them.