Harrisburg – June 2, 2021 At the request of Senators Wayne Fontana (D- Allegheny), Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D- Allegheny), Jim Brewster (D- Allegheny/Westmoreland), and Lindsey Williams (D- Allegheny), the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Policy Committee held a virtual public hearing on how Pennsylvania can best improve care in nursing homes.

“The COVID-19 pandemic was a wakeup call for us all that certain aspects of our society are not equipped to quickly and efficiently respond to crisis, and that many sectors of our society that were already struggling suffered the greatest losses due to the pandemic,” Senator Costa said. “Our nursing homes care for some of the most vulnerable members of our society, and it is imperative that these care facilities are not only equipped to respond to crisis like pandemics, but that even in the best of times they are properly staffed and overseen.”

In her testimony today, Teresa Osborne, Manager of Advocacy & Outreach at AARP PA, said that with nearly 13,300 deaths of Pennsylvanians residing in long-long term care facilities, and with Pennsylvanians 50 and over accounting for 98% of all COVID-19 related deaths, the need for action on this issue is clear.

“Nursing homes during the pandemic struggled to maintain the health and safety of their residents, the health and safe staffing levels of their employees, and family and loved were almost completely shut out of the lives of residents in congregate care settings. We must ensure that nursing homes in the future are prepared for another health crisis, and that these facilities are operating efficiently and to the highest standards at all times,” Senator Fontana said.

Senator Lindsey Williams continued, “Our nursing home residents, their families, and their loved ones have been some of the hardest hit by COVID-19, but these problems don’t begin and end with the current pandemic. We need to do more to protect the health, safety, and emotional well-being of our seniors, and hearing directly from the people who are doing this work every day is a key part of creating legislative policy that will provide the supports needed to accomplish those goals.”

Keshia Williams, a CNA Nursing Home Worker and member of SEIU Healthcare, said today in her testimony that the residents she cares for in nursing homes almost daily become like family, and sometimes residents have no other family to support them – just her and her fellow CNAs and nurses. She said that makes it even harder to deal with the fact that the state only requires 2.7 hours of care for residents in a 24-hour period.

“For decades, we sounded the alarm on chronic and dangerous understaffing and unacceptable conditions for workers and residents. We made do with dwindling resources and demanded lifesaving reform, while the industry increasingly focused on the bottom line, and rampant, unchecked nursing home sales to irresponsible owners drove down standards,” Keshia Williams said.

Dennis Biondo, Allegheny County Executive Director of Kane Community Living Centers, said in his testimony that oversight of nursing home and community care centers is done through surveys by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. He said that this is, “not going to improve nursing home care,” because instead of creating meaningful change they are just a way to check off boxes.

“Pennsylvania Department of Health is charged with the licensure and regulation of nursing homes. The Department’s Office of Quality Assurance oversees this important regulatory oversight of monitoring compliance through surveys, commonly known to the public as facility inspections, to ensure that facilities are providing adequate resident care in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. This applies to federal law and regulation since, in addition to the department’s role as the state survey entity, it is also contracted by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to serve as the federal survey entity for nursing homes,” Keara Klinepeter, PA Department of Health Executive Deputy Secretary, explained.

Klinepeter said that while survey regulation was required at the federal level in Pennsylvania, and in every state across the U.S., the PA Dept of Health saw during the COVID-19 pandemic the benefits of partnerships between hospitals and medical systems to PA nursing homes through the Regional Response Program funded by CARES Act money. Klinepeter said that efforts are already in place to continue this program through federal grant funding. This will allow nursing homes in Pennsylvania to continue training staff on appropriate public health practices related to pandemic response and beyond.

In response to inquiries about nursing home complaints and surveys that result from those, Klinepeter said that the Dept of Health saw an increase of 23% in surveys in 2020. These surveys also included surveys to inspect facilities use of infection control measures.

Georgia Goodman, Leading Age PA Director of Government Affairs, reiterated the importance of maintaining employee morale and providing adequate and well-paid staff to care for residents.

“Nursing facilities can’t simply raise their prices. Two out of three residents in nursing homes are paid for by the Medical Assistance Program- the government payor that is underfunding care by an average of $80 per resident per day for our members. We are urging support for the direct allocation of $396 million to nursing facilities using the same methodology the general assembly enacted in Act 24 of 2020 to help providers with a number of financial challenges brought on by the pandemic, but none more acute than staffing,” Goodman said.

Goodman also said that her organization was grateful to collaborate on Senate Bill 1268, which offered nurse aides hired temporarily during the pandemic a path to permanent registration on the Nurse Aide registry, and they are supportive of a number of current initiatives like Senate Bill 115 to allow Pennsylvania to participate in licensure reciprocity so that nurses from other states can assist with our state’s healthcare workforce shortages.

“It is despicable that the care of our senior population in Pennsylvania seems to be an afterthought to those in charge of the oversight and guidelines for care in nursing homes and community care facilities. Nursing home complaints, oversight regulations, and the need for safe staffing levels to provide adequate care were an issue before this pandemic. Now that we have seen over 10,000 nursing home residents die of COVID-19, it is clear that Pennsylvania needs immediate and forceful action to protect our seniors and those who live in community care settings,” Sen. Kate Muth (D- Berks/Chester/Montgomery), chair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, said.

Below are all who participated in today’s hearing:

  • Dennis Biondo, Allegheny County, Executive Director Kane Community Living Centers
  • Keara Klinepeter, PA Department of Health, Executive Deputy Secretary
  • Dean Owrey, Chief Financial Officer, Vincentian Collaborative System
  • Georgia Goodman, Leading Age PA, Director of Government Affairs
  • Keshia Williams, CNA, Nursing Home Worker, SEIU Healthcare
  • Debbie Winn-Horvitz, President & CEO, Jewish Association on Aging
  • Jennifer Costello, Chester County Department of Aging, Long-term Care Ombudsman
  • Teresa Osborne, Manager of Advocacy & Outreach, AARP PA

Senators who also attended this hearing include Sen. Sharif Street (D- Philadelphia) and Sen. Maria Collett (D- Bucks/Montgomery).

The full recording of this roundtable, as well as the written testimony from participants, can be found at senatormuth.com/policy. A full recording of this hearing can also be found on the PA Senate Democratic Facebook page.