Long-term care systems suffer from underinvestment, according to Marc Cohen, co-director of LeadingAge LTSS Center at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Cohen’s warning opens the Jewish Healthcare Foundation’s documentary “What COVID Exposed in Long-Term Care,” focusing on COVID-19’s threat to the elderly and disabled in nursing facilities.
WQED will present a stream of the 22-minute documentary online Wednesday, Feb. 24, at 7 p.m. Following the program, Lynne Hayes Freeland will host a panel discussion about what is happening in the long-term care industry, what it means for baby boomers and their children and what policy changes need to occur to properly care for seniors in the coming years.
Through footage sourced from cable news stations and a bevy of local and national experts, the documentary makes the point that, despite the crisis occurring at long-term facilities early in the virus’ impact, there was no systematic plan to combat the effects of COVID-19. As a result, patients died and family members felt victimized.
The nursing home population, Cohen notes, is .5% of the general population but accounts for 40-50% of COVID-19 deaths.
“People weren’t thinking of nursing homes,” explains Dr. Vincent Mor, professor of health services, policy and practice at Brown University. “They didn’t make a big, concerted effort to get protective equipment to them, to begin testing staff. Nursing homes were always an afterthought.”
Deficiencies in both state and federal planning led directly to the deaths of long-term care patients, according to several experts in the documentary.
“We have been on our own trying to deal with this virus and keep our residents safe,” said Jewish Association on Aging President and CEO Deborah Winn-Horvitz.
Nursing home owners, operators and staff were easy targets for blame, notes narrator Chris Lockerman, despite the fact that facility front-line workers and management attempted to find guidance and support.
Long-term care facilities are understaffed, have a lack of substantial investment and include workers who are undercompensated and aging, according to the program.
“Residents of these facilities deserve a level of care and skill that government reimbursement simply doesn’t support,” Lockerman says.
“The single largest issue is the underfunding of Medicaid clients in nursing facilities,” Winn-Horvitz said. “For most organizations, that shortfall is $100 a day per person. That’s well over a million dollars a year. This issue was very significant going into COVID and has now been completely exasperated because of COVID-19.”
JHF decided to produce the documentary after seeing the deep flaws within the system exposed by the pandemic, said JHF President and CEO Karen Wolk Feinstein.
“Years of neglecting the challenges to our nursing homes led to the chaos and death that is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the pandemic and we wanted to create something that would tell this important story,” she said.
Feinstein serves on the board of the JAA and said the staff there struggled with “the unthinkable.”
“Their courage and resourcefulness convinced me that they, and others in similar situations, needed to receive their due,” she said.
While the prioritization of seniors and those living in congregate settings to receive the vaccine was a positive step, Feinstein said that many underlying issues have not yet been addressed and there remains an urgent need to reform the long-term care system.
“The mission for the documentary is to raise the issues underneath the horrible number of deaths from COVID-19 in nursing homes and spur action to change national and state policy,” she said. “We want this to further conversation for the urgent need to reform our long-term care system.”
The documentary ends with a call to action to viewers to contact governors and legislators on behalf of seniors, with a goal of redesigning and investing in better equipped, adequately staffed residential facilities.
If allowed to continue unabated, the next pandemic will see the same cycle at long-term facilities, Feinstein said, “if not worse.”
Viewers interested in screening the program must register in advance at ovee.itvs.org/screenings/55iri.PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.