James M. Berklan

The flurry of nursing-home related activity in the nation’s capital Thursday was breathtaking by any measure.

Release of an interim rule to collect facility COVID-19 infection data at a national level for the first time.

Announcements about a new wave of 1135 waiver provisions.

An event at the White House attended by top nursing home association execs.

Details about protective equipment being shipped by the federal government to every single U.S. nursing home.

Known COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. climbing well over 62,000, and U.S. coronavirus infections well over 1 million, and rising.

The unveiling of a new nursing home quality-safety commission.

And if anybody wondered, a full list of all the nursing home-related regulatory moves the administration has made “on seniors’ behalf” since around early March B.C. (Before Corona).

And then there was the most jaw-dropping event of all: the leader of the nation’s second-largest nursing home association calling “bull” on federal regulators and the administration.

After an impressive administration blitz announcing what was billed as new opportunities for providers (but you’ll also notice, greater satisfaction for distrustful consumers), it was LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan who cut through the fog with a carving knife. (See today’s top news item.)

Sensing she and her colleagues were getting a quick snack and a nice pat on the head, she very boldly said that overseers were trying to make providers think they were getting far more than they were, and were bringing it far too late anyway. And being a part of this new commission? Who’s going to have the sharpest knives there? There’s a big difference between being asked over for dinner and being served for dinner.

Thousands of people are still dying every day from Public Health Enemy No. 1, and many of those are nursing home patients. No matter how much a curve might seem to be flattening here or there, nursing home operators are going to be neck deep in apprehension for a long time. They’ll be non-stop worrying whether their patients, they themselves or their own family members will be next on the coronavirus victim board. 

It’s hell trying to fight an invisible enemy while under equipped, understaffed and underfunded. And then be told that some of the brightest minds around are going to meet to figure out what a certified nursing aide could tell anyone before reporting to work for her second day.

The nation’s elderly were always known to be the most vulnerable, here and in other countries. And they’re compliantly dying in bloated numbers to prove that point day after day. And many more will for months to come.

That’s what compelled Smith Sloan, who literally represents the Little Sisters of the Poor (and other nonprofit organizations), to become the mouse that roared.

The nation’s largest nursing home association, meanwhile, decided to play the safe long game. Perhaps shackled by its need to be the main diplomatic negotiator for most things long-term care in this country, the American Health Care Association rolled over and played cuddly with a late-to-the-party administration. 

(Federal regulators admittedly have taken many helpful steps, and have a limited pot of resources to deal with, but anybody who pulls out their resume on recent nursing home actions as often they do, seems to be trying a little too hard to convince somebody of something.)

The AHCA’s politically correct “appreciation” statements about unfulfilling actions might be the right move in the end. After all, there will be more battles to be fought in the future and one has to keep some powder dry.

But when they look back at this one in the history books, there’s going to be an awful lot of furrowed brows and shaking heads. They’ll be wondering how long-term care patients and their care providers were treated second-class for so long, again and again.

Follow Executive Editor James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.