Pa Harry Pezzano
Thanks to the bipartisan leadership of the Pennsylvania General Assembly and Governor Tom Wolf in the latest state budget, Pennsylvania has taken a good first step in supporting the long-term care industry in Pennsylvania. In general, Pennsylvania’s 2022-2023 budget. is investing more than $600 million in state and federal funds so it can help care for one of the nation’s largest populations of seniors.
So often we hear how heads of government don’t want to work together or how they put politics before good public policy. This is not one of those stories. Rather, it is an example of how government, industry and workers can come together to improve care for the elderly.
It is important to understand what brought us to this point. For too long, nursing homes have struggled to retain their loyal workers, in part because Medicaid funding has remained flat for years, making it impossible to keep up with even basic inflationary costs. The pandemic only worsened the situation.
Pennsylvania has lost nearly 1,000 qualified beds in the past four years (source: CMS.gov), and a survey of LeadingAge PA members found that from 2019 to 2021, the number of nursing home beds going out of network quadrupled. As of 2020, 14 nursing homes have closed completely.
The human toll is much worse than the statistics. With the closings and loss of beds, where were these elderly residents receiving care? Unfortunately, some families are forced to seek care in an unfamiliar place, far from home. This undoubtedly led to the social isolation of the residents and the feeling of depression and helplessness of their loved ones. As a speech pathologist and post-acute physician, I know all too well the impact this has on mental health and overall health.
That’s why this huge effort by government, industry and labor comes at such a critical time.
This $600 million infusion will allow aging service providers to compete with other industries for skilled workers. It also helps provide respite as long-term care communities continue to battle the pandemic. The crisis is not over for aged care services.
Providers continue to bear the financial and operational burden of following extensive infection prevention protocols, managing costs for personal protective equipment and consumables, maintaining cumbersome and duplicative reporting, and constantly recruiting staff and other resources based on the latest influx of cases.
Now that the virus is becoming a part of everyday life and the threat has diminished, it is time to review and abolish rules and regulations that are no longer needed and reduce the quality of life for residents.
This new funding is a good start in the right direction, but much more needs to be done legislatively to help address the current challenges.
At the start of the pandemic, the government provided a way to ease the burden on staff by creating the Temporary Nurses Program (TNA); however, that program ended in June after the federal waiver expired.
Congress must pass a law (HR 7744) to renew and extend the waiver from TNA. Meanwhile, the state has until Oct. 6 to apply for a federal waiver to extend the testing deadline in light of testing affordability issues that have made it difficult for these caregivers to become certified nursing assistants (CNAs).
We also need to ensure that our current CNAs have opportunities for advancement, and that providers can remain competitive with other industries. Lawmakers can help communities by providing more flexibility for CNAs to advance through the career ladder, including allowing qualified nurses to train to become medical administration technicians. In addition, transparency and oversight of temporary staffing agencies and cost protection are needed to ensure that older Pennsylvanians have access to the care they need.
Pennsylvanians should be proud of the work done in the state budget on behalf of long-term care. This will help improve the lives of countless seniors and their loved ones. But let’s not stop now. Too much important work remains to ensure Pennsylvanians have access to these important supports.
As we have just seen, if we work together, everything is possible.
Harry Pezzano is the president and CEO of LeadingAge PA, an association representing more than 360 senior care providers throughout Pennsylvania. He writes from Mechanicsburg, PA.