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The Senate must act: End the nursing home crisis now

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Eighteen deaths an hour. Over 3,000 deaths a week. Over 50,000 deaths in less than five months.

That’s how many people — husbands, wives, grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, and fathers — have died of COVID-19 in America’s nursing homes. These deaths are more than just a statistic. Each one represents a human being who is now gone from this earth. And the worst part is, many of these deaths were preventable.

It was no secret that nursing homes would be incredibly vulnerable to this pandemic. In late February, hundreds of seniors died in Washington state’s long-term care facilities. Now, COVID-19 nursing home deaths have skyrocketed. Due to the failure of the Trump administration and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to take action, months into the pandemic these facilities still lack the necessary resources to protect their residents and staff.

Nursing homes account for 11 percent of COVID-19 cases, but make up 40 percent of deaths. And nursing homes with predominantly black and Latino residents are twice as likely to be inundated with the coronavirus.

Deaths are even more staggering at the local level—with nursing home residents and workers often accounting for well over 50 percent of COVID-19 fatalities in some states. Mandated COVID-19 data reporting is also a key component of the HEROES Act, as infection and death numbers are most likely underreported.

It’s unsurprising that nursing homes have become the epicenters of the COVID-19 crisis. Seniors, people with disabilities, and workers in nursing homes and long-term care facilities are all long-overlooked populations. In particular, they are overlooked by a government that’s focused on bailing out the wealthy and powerful — including the nursing home industry. That industry boasts a strong, but under-the-radar, lobbying machine to protect their profit-driven interests.

Private equity firms own many nursing homes and squeeze them for every last drop of profit. They care about their shareholders’ bottom lines, not keeping residents healthy. Their budget cuts have turned nursing home workers into minimum wage workers. Employees frequently have to work in multiple facilities to make ends meet, often without paid sick leave and necessary protective gear—turning each infected worker into a vector for the disease.

The Senate is well aware of the staggering crisis in nursing homes. The House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act, which contains vital provisions to protect nursing home residents and workers in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, over a month ago. It provides funding so that nursing homes can implement widespread testing and get workers the protective equipment they need. It also allots funding for the creation of COVID-19 only facilities, so that patients discharged from hospitals aren’t spreading the virus to other residents. These measures would help identify and contain the virus, saving untold numbers of lives.

But McConnell refuses to bring the HEROES Act to the Senate floor for a vote, and hasn’t bothered to propose an alternative plan.

It’s not fair to say that the Trump administration, Mitch McConnell, and their Republican colleagues are doing nothing. They’re working hard — to protect the corporate investors who helped create the horrific nursing home conditions from liabilities.

Passing the HEROES Act, or any legislation whatsoever, to put seniors’ lives before the interests of corporate profits is the bare minimum after months of inexcusable policies and inaction from the Trump administration, as well as many governors in both parties. This includes senseless policies that sent COVID-19 positive patients to nursing homes with no positive cases.

Of course, the government must do more than just protect vulnerable populations so they don’t unnecessarily die. Congress must ensure that seniors and people with disabilities are able to live in good health and with dignity, pandemic or not. Addressing the systemic issues in nursing homes and increasing Social Security’s modest benefits are key to making sure seniors and people with disabilities can not only survive this crisis, but live with a higher quality of life.

The COVID-19 crisis in nursing homes and long-term care facilities is more than just a public health failure. It’s a moral failure. These deaths were preventable. Nursing homes and long-term care facilities cannot continue to be COVID-19 death traps.

McConnell and his caucus of Senate Republicans must take immediate action to end the nursing home crisis. They must hold nursing home corporations accountable, not give them legal immunity.

Alex Lawson is the Executive Director of Social Security Works.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Mitch McConnell nursing homes

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