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May 6, 2020 – Pennsylvania State Senators Pam Iovino (D – Allegheny & Washington), Katie Muth (D – Berks, Chester & Montgomery), and Lisa Boscola (D – Lehigh & Northampton) co-chaired a virtual Senate Democratic Policy Committee meeting today to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on nursing homes and the state veterans’ homes operated by the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA), and to identify policy solutions that protect the health and safety of residents and employees.

“As a former Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, I saw firsthand in veterans’ hospitals, clinics, and retirement homes how committed the staff are to those under their care. Far beyond just doing their jobs, these healthcare providers are devoted to their patients and feel an obligation not just to care for them, but to protect them,” said Senator Iovino, Democratic Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee. “That’s why they are among the best long-term care facilities in the country and why families have such comfort when their loved ones are there. COVID-19 has hit the Southeastern Veteran Center hard and we learned that protocols are not working. We must be mandating the best practices to protect this vulnerable population. I look forward to greater transparency and working with DMVA leadership toward that end, and appreciate their participation in today’s hearing.”

“As a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, and as the Senator of the district where the Southeast Veterans Center is located, this issue impacts my community directly,” said Senator Muth. “COVID-19 has created intense challenges for direct care providers in congregate care settings.  They’re putting themselves at risk while trying to protect our most vulnerable. Transparency and communication with families is imperative when people don’t have access to visit their family member. Nursing and veterans homes’ administrators need to provide families with truthful, timely information, as well as peace of mind and that often requires going above and beyond the minimum care the guidelines recommend. I am hopeful that this hearing will ignore immediate action to protect our most vulnerable and those who take care of them.”

Sen. Lisa Boscola, who chairs the committee, noted, “data demonstrates that nursing home residents and employees are amongst the most susceptible to being infected with Covid-19.  It is clear that even as we flatten the curve and open parts of the Commonwealth, we must do more to help these homes improve their preparation and response strategy, step up testing, obtain crucial protective equipment and take whatever steps necessary to protect their residents and employees.”

Two panels presented testimony about their experiences and efforts to protect the residents and staff at these facilities. The first panel included testimony from nursing home staff, a family member of a PA state veterans’ home resident, and Chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissions. The second panel included testimony from top DMVA officials, including those responsible for administering the state-run veterans’ homes, and the Chester County Coroner.

“In the immediate moment, we need boots on the ground to physically visit facilities that are under stress, people who can help answer questions, observe what is happening, and offer advice,” said Dr. Valerie (Val) Arkoosh, Chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners. “We also need to connect places to testing, both for residents and the staff. That has to be accompanied by an understanding of how we get staff in-place that can relieve those individuals who have to go home for some time.”

“Our family appreciated all the staff at Southeastern Veterans Center as they went out of their way to make [my mother] feel comfortable and safe; then COVID-19 appeared on our shore,” said Fran McDermott, daughter of a resident at Southeastern Veterans Center. “This lack of transparency cannot stand. We, the families of the residents, deserve better. The residents deserve better.”    

“A closed system with no outside eyes and ears is a recipe for disaster for any vulnerable person, but that is what we now have,” said Dr. Christina VandePol, Chester County Coroner. Facilities are on lock-down. Death certificates are being completed by facility employees. Inspections have been suspended. Ombudsmen and families are no longer allowed inside. An indicator of the lack of oversight is that the number of reports of elder abuse and neglect has dropped precipitously since the pandemic began.”

Major General Anthony J. Carrelli, the DMVA Adjutant General, discussed numerous steps administrators and nurses from state veterans’ homes (SVH) took to prepare, prevent and contain the spread of the virus.

“We are in the midst of an emergency; none of us have experienced anything like this in our lifetimes,” said  Maj. Gen. Anthony Carrelli. “Our National Guard is actively assisting homes on the verge of collapse, in dire need to regroup. The presence of the National Guard provides the facilities critical time to regroup its staff, PPE, and contracts to prepare to take on the next day. These are very challenging times, and the circumstances are far less than ideal. I am confident, however, that our SVH staff and National Guard members are doing the best that they can every day, their commitment, and the selfless care they bring to others is exceptional.”

The full list of panelists included:

  • Alex Metricarti, Chief Marketing and Public Relations Officer at Living Branches Senior Living Community (Montgomery County)
  • Fran McDermott, daughter of a PA state veterans’ home resident
  • Dr. Valerie (Val) Arkoosh, Chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners
  • Maj. Gen. Anthony Carrelli, DMVA Adjutant General
  • Maj. Gen. (Retired) Eric Weller, DMVA Deputy Adjutant General for Veterans Affairs
  • Andrew Ruscavage, Director of the DMVA Bureau of Veteran Homes
  • Dr. Darryl Jackson, Medical Director of the DMVA Bureau of Veteran Homes
  • Dr. Christina VandePol, Chester County Coroner

In addition to Muth, Iovino and Boscola, the following senators participated in the hearing: Senator John Blake (D-Lackawanna), Maria Collett (D-Bucks/Montgomery), Andrew Dinniman (D-Chester), Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny), Larry Farnese (D-Phila.), Vincent Hughes (D-Phila.), Tim Kearney (D-Delaware/Chester), Street (D-Phila.), Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks), Christine Tartaglione (D-Phila.), Anthony Williams (D-Phila./Delaware) and Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny).

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