Brendan Williams

In a press release warning of “Dire Conditions at For-Profit Nursing Home Chains in 2020,” the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis cited care problems at roughly a dozen nursing homes out of the over 15,000 nationwide to make its case. 

I would never excuse neglect, but a couple instances involved shortages of PPE at a time when PPE was infamously unavailable. One example referred to a facility resorting “as late as May 8, 2020” to “makeshift isolation gowns,” which, I can attest from having my association itself try to extricate such gowns from China, was understandable. 

If I were to borrow the Committee’s portentous wording, “as late as July 1, 2020” I was quoted in a national Associated Press article about the “garbage bag” isolation gowns the federal government had sent nursing homes, stating, “There’s no way a provider is going to force a caregiver into the indignity of wearing a garbage bag. Things are bad enough.”

According to the Committee, one “anonymous individual” stated that staff at a nursing home had to wear the same masks on successive days, but one must remember there was such a shortage of masks that the Joint Commission for hospitals issued a public statement “allowing staff to bring their own standard face masks or respirators to wear at work” and noted guidance from the CDC that “[i]n settings where facemasks are not available, healthcare personnel (HCP) might use homemade masks (e.g., bandana, scarf) for care of patients with COVID-19 as a last resort.”

These were desperate times. Has the Committee forgotten this, or the federal government’s own culpability? “As late as July 24, 2020” I supplied pictures for a New York Times article on the defective masks the federal government sent out. And I have perhaps a dozen boxes of face shields in my association’s storage room if anyone wants them, as we had ordered them for member use when that was the shortage du jour.

The Committee’s prurient interest in for-profit facilities overlooks all the government-run facilities that had major problems handling an unprecedented virus, or a certain disgraced New York governor turning his state’s nursing homes into killing fields, a tragedy that did not dissuade politicians who lined up to laud his “leadership.” But setting that aside, I fail to conceive how one can bootstrap anecdotes from the worst possible time for our entire healthcare system into an argument for increasing nursing home staffing at a time when staff is unavailable. But some want to.

Over half of New Hampshire’s nursing homes, in a state where the unemployment rate is 2%, have a staffing shortage according to an AARP metric. I know county-run facilities with wait lists of over 100 residents who are balancing demand for care against the need to responsibly prove it. Private facilities are in the same boat. 

Is the staffing shortage for lack of trying? According to a regional accounting firm study we commissioned, between 2019 and 2021 New Hampshire nursing homes saw wage costs go 20% higher excluding staffing agencies, and wages have gone up since. Yet this is to little avail. 

Recently I had many facilities detail their plight to the state. Consider a nonprofit with 32 full-time nursing positions open that spent $253,022 on staffing agencies last month, and, perhaps not coincidentally, lost $208,000 that month. They cannot staff up to fill their beds. It is a recipe for closure. Our state had to grant a $7.6 million contract with a California staffing agency to its own Veterans Home, because the facility was running half-empty and couldn’t find staff even with the higher wages and benefits the state can offer.

A blame-shifting federal government punishing an entire healthcare sector over the alleged transgressions of a few actors is an unconscionable idea. But, then again, unconscionability has long defined government’s treatment of our most vulnerable citizens and those who toil to care for them.

Brendan Williams is the president and CEO of the New Hampshire Health Care Association.

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.