James M. Berklan

Hospital-nursing home relationships might have never been more important than Wednesday. 

That’s because the nursing home field qualified for the intensive care unit after getting the living daylights beat out of it like few, if any other, days in memory.

Long-term care, of course, is accustomed to having a target on its back, and key players knew ahead of time that Wednesday was going to be tough going. But that didn’t make the public floggings any easier to absorb.

The centerpiece was a Senate Finance Committee hearing reviewing what nursing homes acknowledge was their worst year ever. Lawmakers, consumer groups and others, however, took turns piling on. Since nearly 40% of U.S. COVID-19 deaths were associated with nursing home settings, those who run them must be responsible for the invisible killer that invaded and killed so many vulnerable individuals. Or so the thinking seemed to go.

Aside from that, hearing attendee Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) also created headlines by intensifying her criticism of Genesis HealthCare, which rewarded a long-time retiring CEO with a hefty financial package, despite corporate carnage that has brutalized the company’s image and finances since well before the pandemic.

George Hager’s $5.2 million bonus was indeed terrible optics. But to hear Warren howl about it, one would think that the company had sold its bedpans and linens out from under patients to pay off a masked gunman jumping from the deck of the Titanic.

Under Warren’s reasoning, any provider that accepted pandemic relief funds and still experienced COVID deaths ought to be quaking in their boots.

Come to think of it, there wasn’t similar congressional outcry a few years back when then-HCR ManorCare CEO Paul Ormond demanded more than $100 million in deferred payment owed to him when he retired, even though the company clearly had seen better days at the time. (He ultimately received the payout because the company agreed it was contractually agreed-to compensation.)

That brings up one of the saddest observations about Wednesday: It’s easy to kick somebody when they’re down, and even recruit friends with bigger boots while the kicking is good. Nursing home personnel, unfortunately, are no strangers to such treatment.

Hey, somebody has to answer for all of those 175,000-plus dead associated with nursing homes, right? To some degree, it’s a lot like blaming your I.T. guy because you only see him when a computer has malfunctioned.

Of course, we can’t forget about the reintroduction of the Nursing Home Reform Modernization Act. While there’s nothing wrong with putting more consistently poor-performing operators on notice, one has to wonder: Did this tar-and-feathering also need to take place Wednesday? 

After it was first introduced in November, the bill languished, largely because a split Congress wasn’t moving anything, but also because of funding questions that are likely to dog it this time, too. Increased oversight and education are free to wish for, but don’t happen without a significant price tag.

Of course, like any horror movie, this drama has not played out minus some questionable behavior by the victims. Nobody’s suggesting there aren’t outliers testing limits among the provider crowd.

Nursing home critics, for example, have blasted staffing levels perhaps more than anything. But this has been an “I-told-you-so” scenario building for years. Interestingly, both sides like to play the “we told you more staffing is needed” card.

Nonetheless, a valid point can be made that if you’re constantly speeding through yellow lights, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself running a red light and getting into real trouble.

Still, there’s a sense that lawmakers, regulators and consumer groups feel a need to take their frustration out on someone or something, and who better to smack around than publicly funded, yet often privately owned, nursing homes? 

The thought that those closest to a disaster are ultimately responsible, however, doesn’t always hold up. If it did, an awful lot of firefighters should be nervous. Last I knew, it’s not uncommon to see them holding a hose in the middle of a raging fire.

Follow Executive Editor James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.