Representatives from U.S. nursing homes told lawmakers Thursday that they still lack personal protective equipment months after the start of a coronavirus outbreak where such facilities account for 43 percent of U.S. deaths from the virus.
The House ways and means' health subcommittee heard from nursing home doctors and nurses as well as family members of residents and patients, all of whom testified about unsafe conditions.
Deaths among residents from nursing homes and assisted living facilities account for 43 percent of U.S. COVID-19 deaths.
Witnesses told lawmakers they face low pay -- often barely above minimum wage -- long hours and a lack of sufficient personal protective equipment. They also called for increased transparency in case reporting in nursing homes by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which recently started releasing data on COVID-19 cases in these facilities.
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, gestured to a sign posted behind him that listed the number of days before the CMS acted in several key areas since the first cases appeared in a Washington state nursing home. He said it took 97 days to release nursing home data, 80 days to enact a baseline testing requirement for the facilities and 61 days to provide PPE. When the PPE came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he said, "much of it was junk that frequently was unusable -- glorified trash bags as gowns and cloth mask instead of N-95 masks."
A National Nurses United poll found that through June 24, "85 percent of nurses are still being asked to reuse PPE, although there is no scientifically proven way to do that safely."
Doggett said he submitted repeated requests for a representative from CMS to attend the hearing, but the agency declined.
"This administration, which seems more terrified of transparency and accountability than COVID-19, has declined to provide any witness with the courage to face the responsibility for the thousands of deaths that have occurred," he said.
He added that 800 facilities have yet to report data on their COVID-19 numbers.
Melinda Haschak, a licensed practical nurse from Stamford, Conn., told the committee her nursing home faced severe shortages of masks and eye protection.
"I had to find PPE for myself and my co-workers using my own money and the help of friends and family members," said Haschak, who supplied her facility with 4,000 masks and other PPE. "I couldn't bear to risk exposure to COVID-19 so recklessly."
She caught COVID-19 just before Mother's Day.
Toby Edelman, senior policy attorney at the Center for Medicare Advocacy, testified that the Trump administration has rolled back protections on nursing homes, making them vulnerable to the pandemic's effects. She cited both a 2019 change that waived annual inspection requirements for "top-performing" facilities and another that limited requirements for an in-person infection preventionist.
"Improving quality of care and quality of life in nursing facilities that do not provide good care requires multiple efforts, simultaneously made," she said. "Residents and their families and taxpayers deserve no less."