Provider relief fund dollars aren't up for grabs

Some in Congress are preparing to take tens of billions of dollars away from seniors to help offset new spending on roads and bridges. And unless our federal leaders loudly object to this effort to rob seniors to pay for sewer pipes, senior care facilities nationwide will be facing imminent financial ruin just as a the Delta variant of COVID-19 heightens the need for housing that can better protect older Americans.

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the financial foundations of every sector of our nation’s economy, and senior living facilities — home to approximately 2 million Americans in their golden years — are no different. This is why Congress appropriated $178 billion to help ensure providers, such as assisted living communities, recover and continue to provide care and housing for these seniors.

More than a year-and-a-half into the pandemic, and despite the promised relief represented by that legislation, both the current and former administration have failed to release these monies contrary to their public comments to Congress, legislative intent, and clear, demonstrated financial duress in this industry.

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Now, as Congress races toward an infrastructure deal, these unspent COVID-19 relief funds have suddenly been identified — behind-closed-doors and without public input — as a potential offset, favoring money for wasterwater infrastructure and telecom over care for our nation’s elderly. Although details of this legislation are still being finalized, formal consideration is expected to begin in the Senate as early as next week.

Taking this money away from senior living communities will have a catastrophic impact on millions of American seniors who call them home. Our nation’s senior living providers have incurred nearly $30 billion in uncompensated financial losses due to the burdens imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, yet less than 1 percent of Provider Relief Fund resources has been used to help them.

The slow and untargeted distribution of the Provider Relief Fund was already stretching the remaining resources of senior living facilities thin. If the remaining funds are taken away to pay for infrastructure spending it will push many facilities past the breaking point, requiring them to close and creating an immediate housing crisis for tens of thousands of the most at-risk Americans just as new strains of COVID spread.

Assisted living facilities have done exceptional work supporting the vaccinations of their seniors but the rise of new COVID strains like the Delta variant is creating a growing threat to older Americans. Of the nearly 5,500 cases the CDC has identified in which fully vaccinated people have been hospitalized or died following a breakthrough COVID infection, approximately seventy-five percent have been age 65 or older.

Senior living facilities incurred tens of billions of dollars in uncompensated losses to protect their residents from COVID over the last 18 months, and these new variants mean they very well may have to do it all over again this fall. Ironically, at the exact same time, Congress is considering taking away the remaining funds that could help them meet this new challenge. This is unfair, and will unquestionably put seniors needlessly at risk.

Investing in our country’s infrastructure is clearly a national priority, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of America’s seniors. Congress and the administration should immediately reject any use of as yet unspent COVID-19 funding and recommit themselves to the quick and targeted distribution of those relief monies to the communities that house our nation’s seniors. Scaring the frail and elderly with potential homelessness should never be a viable political option.

James Balda is the president & CEO of Argentum, a national association dedicated to supporting senior living communities and the older adults and families they serve.