AUSTIN (KXAN) – With nursing homes throughout the state struggling during the pandemic to facilitate visits between seniors and their families, state officials in October created a $3.5 million program to repay homes for plexiglass dividers and tents that would make visits safer. But two months after its inception, a KXAN investigation has found half the program’s applicants were denied and a fraction of the state’s homes have received reimbursement, according to state records.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s Office and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission announced the visitation aid program, funded with federal dollars from the Civil Money Penalty Program, on Oct. 2.

“With this funding, we will help keep nursing facility residents and their families safe while ensuring that residents can be with their loved ones and receive the support they need,” Abbott said in a news release that day.

At $3,000 per facility, the $3.5 million program could potentially reimburse up to 95% of the state’s nursing homes. To date, just 68 of Texas’ more than 1,200 facilities have been approved, and 67 facilities have been denied, according to program records obtained by KXAN through the Texas Public Information Act.

‘We were troubled’

Eddie Parades, Senior Vice President of StoneGate Senior Living which operates several nursing homes across the state, described how the pandemic has weighed on his staff, the residents and their families.

“The balance between keeping our residents safe and allowing visitation is something we’ve struggled with every day,” Eddie Parades said. “We think we’ve seen the compromise, and the compromise has, in part, been these visitation screens.”

Parades said they’ve been awarded funds from Civil Money Penalty programs in the past and historically, they’ve waited 60 days, or more, for a response—”time that we did not have to wait for these items to be put in place during the pandemic.”

“Those funds aren’t doing well sitting in a bank account. We need to utilize them for patient care and services.”

Eddie Parades, Senior Vice President of StoneGate Senior Living

The company noted they purchased some plexiglass dividers and visitation screens in August and September, then invested in more equipment in October, after the state’s reimbursement program was announced. Then recently, when all 14 of their requests for facility reimbursement were denied, Parades said they were shocked, disappointed and troubled.

“We thought it was an error,” Parades said. “The pandemic was roaring at that time, and our poor residents hadn’t seen their families for about four months,” he said.

The Civil Money Penalty Program is funded with fines levied by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services against out-of-compliance nursing homes.

HHSC said it is “working hard to help nursing facilities safely reopen visitation” and has “worked closely with provider associations to get the word out about this important program.” Applications for the visitation aid program were rejected for several reasons, and HHSC said it encourages facilities to reapply.

“Under this specific program, some facilities had purchased materials prior to the announcement of the program, making them ineligible for reimbursement. Some didn’t submit all their paperwork and others had requested reimbursement for items that weren’t reimbursable under the program,” HHSC said in a statement.

In response to KXAN’s questions about this specific program, HHSC said it has other “regular Civil Money Penalty programs” that have received 160 other applications for infection control projects and “some applications” for projects that included plexiglass dividers and tents, according to an agency statement.

Focused Post Acute Care had 31 of its facilities denied—the most of any single corporation. StoneGate Senior Living LLC had 14 nursing homes denied, and HMG Services LLC had 10 locations denied, according to HHSC’s data.

Parades said he was disappointed to see their quick action and efforts penalized, and he hopes the rest of the funds can be put to good use.

“Those funds aren’t doing well sitting in a bank account. We need to utilize them for patient care and services,” he said.

Gov. Abbott’s office, Focused Post Acute Care and HMG Services LLC did not respond to requests for comment before publishing.

As cases of coronavirus have surged nationwide, and in Texas, active cases in the state’s nursing homes have swelled as well, according to HHSC data.

As of Dec. 4, 98% of the state’s nursing homes have reported at least one case of the virus among staff or residents, and nearly 5,600 nursing home residents have died of it, HHSC’s records show.