Lessons learned from COVID pandemic examined to make changes in PA nursing homes

PITTSBURGH — The pandemic exposed serious care issues in some of our state’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities.  Now, a group of lawmakers and community leaders are taking a hard look at what needs to change.

11 Investigates has previously reported on significant issues with infection prevention, staffing, and a lack of transparency about the problems in nursing homes.

Nursing Home Crisis

More than 13,000 nursing home residents in Pennsylvania died of COVID-19 during the pandemic, one of the worst death rates in the entire country, 5th among all states. That troubling distinction was not lost on state leaders.

“Pennsylvania nursing homes, without a doubt are in crisis and not just with COVID, but actually before that,” explained Sen. Wayne Fontana, D.

The Senate Democratic Caucus Policy Committee held a hearing today listening to testimony from community leaders and frontline workers at nursing homes.

“Over the past 16 months we’ve dealt with many issues and certainly recognize that policy changes need to be made,” Sen. Jay Costa, D, said.

Problem areas

All agreed staffing shortages at long-term care facilities are among the biggest problems that need to be addressed.

“Caregivers are leaving the bedsides in droves, because they cannot put in one more triple shift, break their backs at work all day, and know it still wasn’t enough— because their residents need more and deserve more,” explained certified nursing assistant Keshia Williams.

Certified nursing assistants, who provide hands-on care for patients, typically make between $16-20 an hour. The committee discussed the need for better pay for CNAs to attract more workers.

The executive director of the Allegheny County Kane Living Centers Dennis Biondo called for improvements in the state’s inspection process.  He says regulators from the state Department of Health should help to educate facilities on better practices, not just come in looking for problems.

“They don’t give you direction on how to improve they just say you have to fix these specific areas, and that’s what I think is lacking in the survey process,” Biondo said.

Continuing Education Program

The state announced it is planning to use federal grant money moving forward to continue a program established during the pandemic to educate facilities on issues like infection control.

During the pandemic, The Regional Response Healthcare Collaborative served as a response team going into nursing homes that needed help. The program provided emergency staffing, Personal Protective Equipment, and training on best practices for infection prevention.

DOH announced at the hearing they plan to continue a similar program post-pandemic. The state will request bids in July for healthcare systems to contract with them to continue the collaborative.

“There is a 30% on average turnover among frontline staff at these facilities, and so when they have that type of turnover, there has to be ongoing education that’s provided,” explained Department of Health Executive Deputy Secretary Keara Klinepeter.

Lawmakers plan to take the testimony today and use it to make policy decisions moving forward, in the hopes of avoiding another crisis.