The country’s top leaders are ignoring and walking away from its older residents while trying “to convince us a life or death problem we are coping with each day is just not there,” LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan said as she announced the launching of a campaign to urge lawmakers to provide a comprehensive COVID-19 relief package for older adults and caregivers.

Katie Smith Sloan

The remark was a reference to a Wall Street Journal op-ed from Vice President Mike Pence in which he described predictions of a “second wave” of coronavirus infections as “overblown.”

“Eighty-thousand people over 65 have died in just a few months. Millions more are threatened. This is a national nightmare like we’ve never seen,” Sloan said in announcing LeadingAge’s Act for Older Adults campaign. “More patchwork fixes and half-measures will cost thousands more lives. It’s time to end this national nightmare, with real leadership from the federal government and real relief from Congress.”

The campaign calls for a comprehensive relief package based on the organization’s previously released Five Essential Actions, including:

  • Immediate access to ample and appropriate personal protective equipment for all providers and staff who care for older adults.
  • Accurate and rapid-results testing and funds to cover the costs of that testing.
  • “Hero” pay, paid sick leave and healthcare coverage to frontline workers.
  • A $100 billion emergency fund. 

LeadingAge and the affiliated Visiting Nurse Association of America and ElevatingHOME, of which Sloan is acting president and CEO, provided details of these requests in a June 15 letter to Senate and House leaders.

‘A virtual army of advocates’

The campaign will kick off with more than two dozen virtual meetings with members of Congress, call-in and email campaigns, and a sign-on letter for more than 5,000 nonprofit care providers to urge Congress to include support for aging services providers. Sloan said 28 virtual meetings already have been held and more than 8,000 calls and emails have been made calling for a comprehensive plan to protect older adults.

Congress, she added, will “hear from a virtual army of advocates” through emails and calls on June 23, the National Day of Action for Older Adults. That will be followed on July 8 with a global candlelight vigil led by LeadingAge to remember those lost to COVID-19.

Older adults, care workers and families also will be sharing videos, photos and posts on social media in the coming weeks to “tell their stories, amplify their voices.”

“We know what is needed to keep older adults and those who care for the safe – leadership and resources,” Sloan said. “For too many months, pleas from older adults and aging services providers have gone unanswered. Together, we can ensure Congress hears their urgent call. We’re asking all Americans to take action.”

Testing should be covered

Col. Paul Bricker, chief operating officer of Knollwood Community, a life plan community in Washington, D.C., said COVID-19 hit his community “like a brick wall.” He shared his community’s story of securing enough testing for all of its residents and staff members, indicating that initial support was only offered in testing symptomatic residents. Trying to manage COVID-19 without adequate testing is like “flying in the clouds without instruments,” Bricker said.

“We bit the bullet on the testing, investing between $12,000 and $15,000 on testing,” he said, adding that his community is trying to get reimbursed for testing expenses. “This is one area the federal government can help us with. Testing for COVID-19 should be covered at the national level. We shouldn’t have to go through a lot of paperwork to get reimbursed for testing.”

Without funding or resources from the government, Knollwood Community established a COVID Review Board to handle all operational decisions related to COVID-19, allowing the facility to take advantage of its internal resources and skills.

“It’s really about leadership, initiative and instinct,” Bricker said. 

Government must ‘step up to the plate’

Stephen Fleming, president and CEO of The Well Spring Group, a multi-modal aging services provider in Greensboro, NC, said his two continuing care retirement communities are “in the midst of it,” with their biggest day of new cases on Friday.

Fleming said a lot of resources are going to many different organizations, but when 50% of deaths from COVID-19 are occurring in long-term care facilities “why are we not allocating resources to those organizations?”

”There’s been no coordinated effort. There’s been no funding,” he said, adding that the PPE resources from the government fall short, and the government must “step up to the plate and take care of us that are hurting.” 

The COVID-19 problem in long-term care, Fleming said, is the result of 50 years of neglect of America’s aging population as the country decided to institutionalize older adults through the Medicaid program, giving older adults little choice, and providers little resources to care for them.

“If we don’t come up with a national financing system for caring for older adults, we’re wiping out the middle class by having to bankrupt themselves to have a government safety net,” he said, adding that a middle ground should be found out of this experience. “Surely we can come up with a better system of financing long-term services and support out of this crisis.”

Long-term care is ‘the stepchild of our healthcare system’

Sloan echoed his remarks, saying, “For too long, aging services providers have really been the stepchild of our healthcare system — we’ve been undervalued, we’ve been underinvested in.” This campaign, she added, provides an opportunity to reassert how the healthcare system should be designed, how interdependent all sides are on each other and how they need to have equal status and priority.

Bricker said it’s time for state and local government officials who have dealt with COVID-19 to meet with Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Centers for Disease Control to talk about lessons learned and bring best practices and training into long-term care.

“This is about leadership. Older Americans need more than symbolic gestures, photo opportunities and guidance that comes without tangible resources and hands-on help,” Sloan said, adding that the campaign calls for a comprehensive plan to deliver testing, PPE, resources and real support for caregivers and older adults. 

Sloan unveiled a campaign video in which older residents and care workers remind policymakers that “it’s not over.” 

“Millions of older adults and their families are going to remember in November what their members of Congress do now,” Sloan said.