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State’s handling of nursing homes merits investigation

One year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic was taking direct aim and we were scrambling to avoid being struck.

Almost immediately, it seemed, many nursing homes, including in our area, were under siege with not only cases of the coronavirus but soon also deaths.

Trying to get information for any specific nursing home in Pennsylvania was difficult at first, with the state Department of Health initially saying the data was too convoluted to make public and later citing a disease privacy law that was decades old.

It wasn’t until a federal regulatory change mandating long-term care facilities to report cases to federal officials and notify residents and families that the state finally released the list — in May, two months into the pandemic.

By then, nursing homes were in lockdown, even as they continued to accept COVID-19 patients returning from hospitals, in keeping with Centers for Disease Control guidance and the state Department of Health.

The administration of Gov. Tom Wolf was not alone in using that option to free hospital beds.

In New York state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed nursing homes to accept patients with COVID-19. The homes were prohibited from testing for the virus before new residents arrived, and more than 6,000 COVID-positive people were admitted to New York nursing homes within two months, according to a New York state health department report.

Looking back over the past year, roughly half of the COVID-19 deaths in Pennsylvania have been in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Of the 25,349 deaths in Pennsylvania, 12,945 were in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Now state Republicans are launching a House Government Oversight Committee investigation into Wolf’s handling of this issue.

We support this investigation and believe it is overdue — we even wonder why it took so long.

People lost their lives — many died alone — and if it was because of any mishandling of the situation, their loved ones deserve to know. Indeed, the public has a right to know.

“So many never got to say goodbye,” said state Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga County. “We cannot bring these lives back. We cannot fix the wrong that was done. But we can learn from this and make sure it never happens again.”

Meanwhile, at the federal level, a bipartisan effort would enhance accountability among the nation’s poorest performing nursing homes, further strengthening the system in favor of patients.

The Nursing Home Reform Modernization Act of 2021 would provide additional oversight and enforcement as well as technical assistance and educational programming for those with the worst performance records.

“It’s one thing to put an under-performing nursing home on a list and leave it at that,” said Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the state Health Care Association. “It’s quite another to put that nursing home on a list and ensure the providers, workers and residents receive the support they need to improve and provide high-quality care.”

These are positive steps, aimed at greater accountability for both state government and the long-term care industry.

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