Seniors across the nation could benefit from a Congressional hearing hosted Thursday by U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., in Washington, D.C.
The goal of the hearing, titled “Caring for Seniors Amid the COVID-19 Crisis,” was to apprise senators and the public on the virus' deadly effect on those older than 65 and to put forth action to help that age group during the pandemic.
Casey, a ranking member of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, said while nursing home residents make up 0.5 percent of the U.S. population, they account for one-third of all deaths from COVID-19.
He said that number could climb even higher.
“We are trying to help (nursing home) residents and workers with one hand tied behind our backs,” Casey said, arguing the Trump administration will not release data on nursing home deaths.
He said additional funding for congregate care homes, personal protective equipment, funding for home health care workers and providers, and access to nutrition for seniors living at home are some of the priorities he sees in caring for senior citizens in the pandemic.
Casey said he has been calling for the passage of the Heroes Act since the pandemic reached the U.S. in February.
That Act, which was passed by the House on May 15 with a 208-199 vote, would call for data to be released that would allow for better distribution of PPE to health care workers, prevent the spread of COVID-19, and provide assistance to 800,000 senior citizens who are on waiting lists for nursing home care, Casey said.
Republican legislators, as well as some Democrats, raised concerns over the $3 trillion Act and its contents. President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the bill.
“We have to do more for our seniors. We owe it to them to do everything we can,” Casey said. “There is no such thing as doing too much for our seniors in the grip of this pandemic.”
In addition to the Heroes Act, Casey highlighted three legislative proposals:
Coronavirus Relief for Seniors and People with Disabilities Act, which would help low-income seniors afford the cost of treatment for COVID-19 and ensure seniors and people with disabilities maintain access to home care services that allow them to live independently.
Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act, which would help states pay for personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing and fund premium pay, overtime and other essential benefits for nursing home workers.
COVID-19 Recovery for Seniors and People with Disabilities Act, which would ensure seamless access to Social Security, Medicare and nutrition benefits during the public health emergency and provide funding for senior legal services and education on COVID-19 frauds and scams.
Three doctors specializing in senior citizen health issues testified remotely at the hearing.
Dr. Mark Mulligan, a medical school professor and director of the Langone Vaccine Center in New York City, said the most important weapon in fighting the coronavirus on behalf of seniors would be a vaccine that produces immunity to COVID-19 in the body.
He said because vaccines are not as effective in the elderly as they are in younger people, vaccine trials should be held for workers and residents in nursing homes once a viable vaccine is available.
“We have a long road ahead in developing a safe, effective coronavirus vaccine,” Mulligan said.
He said more testing is necessary in seniors to identify those with the virus so they could be isolated to prevent further spread.
“The more we test, the better we can fight the disease,” Mulligan said.
Professor Tamara Konetzka, of the University of Chicago, said nursing homes and home health care workers should be provided with a reliable supply of PPE so there is not competition with hospitals for masks, gloves, gowns and other protective gear.
She said data from nursing homes from 12 states revealed that there is a strong relationship between race and the number of cases or deaths from COVID-19. However, there is no relationship between a nursing home's national ratings for quality of care and its probability of cases or deaths, and no difference exists in cases or deaths between for-profit and non-profit senior care facilities.
“Even the highest quality nursing homes were left largely unprepared for the coronavirus,” Konetzka said.
She said nursing homes need an influx of funding as well as technical equipment, PPE and testing.
Those on Medicaid need a better ability to get home health care, Konetzka said, and more data transparency nationwide would allow for the best distribution of resources.
“Nursing home residents are ill equipped to monitor their own care, to advocate for themselves, or to exert political influence,” said Konetzka. “This makes regulation and oversight necessary.”
Dr. Steven Landers, president and CEO of the Visiting Nurses Association Health Group, said his VNA workers are using 17,000 surgical masks and 3,500 N95 masks per week, for which his company has been paying seven to 10 times more than normal.
“Going forward, I'd encourage us to look to policy, as it could make sure home health agents have the needed PPE at a reasonable price,” Landers said.
Several U.S. Senators attended the hearing remotely and in person, using social distancing.