Lawmakers argue over how to handle nursing home strike teams, funding in COVID-19 relief bill debate

Nursing Home Investigations

A patient is loaded into an ambulance by emergency medical workers outside Cobble Hill Health Center, Friday, April 17, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The despair wrought on nursing homes by the coronavirus was laid bare Friday in a state survey identifying numerous New York facilities where multiple patients have died. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

WASHINGTON (KXAN) — Lawmakers argued over how to proceed with millions of dollars in funding targeted for the nation’s nursing homes on Thursday, during a markup of the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.

Members of the House Ways and Means Committee agreed nursing homes had been hit hard by the pandemic, with residents of these facilities accounting for more than a third of all the coronavirus deaths in the nation. Still, representatives disagreed about how to address the issues facing the nation’s most vulnerable seniors.

Lawmakers considered two provisions: one would provide $200 million in funding to quality improvement organizations to be utilized for infection control training and enforcement; the other would designate $250 million to fund strike teams of resources and staff to bolster homes that need help.

Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), who chairs the Health Subcommittee, said these measures were the “least they could do” to address issues facing nursing home residents and staff.

“We had the earliest of warnings that these nursing homes were highly vulnerable and susceptible to this virus,” he said, critiquing the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis in long-term care.

He said he believed a lack of testing and what he calls “data lapses” from former officials inside the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid contributed to the high death toll in these homes. He also cited KXAN and other Austin media outlets for uncovering a lack of transparency and public reporting regarding cases and testing in Texas long-term care facilities.

Voting in favor of both provisions, Doggett also added his belief they could “do much more.” He asked his colleagues consider his separate Nursing Home Transparency and Oversight Act, which would create a task force examining quality, staffing and ownership data for the industry.

Still, other Texas lawmakers on the committee — ranking member Rep. Kevin Brady and Rep. Jodey Arrington — opposed the provisions, after several amendments proposed by fellow Republicans failed.

Several lawmakers characterized the measures as “rushed and partisan.” One said they’d be spending “too much, too soon.”

Rep. Adrian Smith (R-NE) argued there were already funds “parked” at CMS and Health and Human Services for nursing homes that have not yet been used.

The U.S. House Ways and Means Committee discusses nursing home funding during a markup of the latest COVID-19 relief package. (Photo: Ways and Means livestream)

Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC) raised the point that a large majority of vulnerable nursing home residents had been vaccinated against the virus, calling it a “feat.”

“I expect the resulting number of infections and the number of deaths will plummet in the next month, if that continues apace, and I expect it will,” he said.

Rice added that he just wanted to make sure they were using every dollar wisely, in these two measures.

“I hope that has some viability. I hope that has some benefit,” he said. “I will say that both the national head of the nursing home association — and the state — that I was speaking to on the phone questioned whether this would have any effect.”

Much of the discussion centered around a proposed amendment by Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY) that would make these funds to states contingent upon a certification from their governors that their nursing home data has been reported accurately.

Reed scrutinized an early directive by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that allowed hospitals to send patients with the virus into nursing homes.

“Doesn’t common sense dictate you shouldn’t have done that? Doesn’t common sense say, ‘Don’t put COVID-19 positive patients into a population of senior citizens who are most at risk of getting and dying of COVID-19?” Reed asked. “That’s the simple question we are trying to get to the bottom of to make sure this never happens again.”

He also cited a recent bombshell investigation by the state’s Attorney General Letitia James, revealing data the New York Department of Health underreported deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50%.

West Texas lawmaker Rep. Arrington voted “absolutely yes,” in favor of Reed’s proposed addition.

Still, the amendment was voted down by their Democratic colleagues.

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