Legislators’ work pays off in new state regs for nursing homes

  • State Rep. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton FILE PHOTO

  • State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru FILE PHOTO

  • State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland   FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/30/2020 3:55:09 PM

After weeks of advocating for one of the most vulnerable populations in Massachusetts, with a large number of illnesses and deaths among them during the COVID-19 pandemic, local legislators are seeing some of the fruits of their labors as the governor has announced there will now be more requirements and accountability in nursing homes across the state.

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, chairwoman of the Joint Public Health Committee, said she has “definitely seen that advocacy gets greater resources and support.”

For instance, reporting from some nursing homes in her district has been sporadic, at best, but that is about to change. In the past few months, as COVID-19 raged through at least two in Greenfield – according to state reports, Buckley HealthCare Center, owned by a company headquartered in Tennessee, topped 30 deaths recently.

The Recorder has repeatedly tried to reach someone at National HealthCare Corporation, owner of Buckley HealthCare, for comment, but to no avail.

“So many of our constituents asked for this,” Comerford said. “This is actually the second phase of support for our nursing homes.”

State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, said the House passed legislation April 21 concerning tracking data at long-term care facilities and elder housing facilities. That legislation asked for the accurate and daily data on COVID-19 cases and deaths to public health officials that the state has now implemented.

Mark said that was done in an effort to protect those most in need. He and his colleagues said the state needs accurate daily data that has been so difficult to obtain throughout the pandemic.

Mark and state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, said this type of reporting is critical.

Comerford said the first phase of the governor’s plan and funding included mobile testing, which, for instance, Charlene Manor Extended Care Facility took advantage of early on when it invited the National Guard to do some testing as it started to see residents fall ill. But even then, only those who had symptoms were tested. As of early this week, Charlene Manor reported 15 positive cases who are being treated at the facility; six had recovered from past positive results and four had died.

Poet’s Seat Health Care Center has been sporadic with its reporting to The Recorder. At times, its owner has provided information about positive cases and deaths, and at other times, the newspaper has been told the center would not share any numbers or information about how residents are being cared for and if they or staff members have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Comerford said in phase one, the state provided $130 million in funding getting personal protection equipment (PPE) to nursing homes across the state. She said the state also started providing funding for nursing homes so their staff can receive hazard pay during the pandemic. Phase two, she said, provides an additional $130 million.

“This will be an intense injection,” Comerford said. “We’re moving from mobile, for instance, to required testing.”

Comerford said testing is now required for all nursing home residents and staff.

“Constituents wanted assurance that their moms and dads would get tested,” she said. “There’s also a 28-point checklist that nursing homes will have to meet, and they will have to follow infection control protocol. It’s all pretty extensive, and they will be audited numerous times.”

She said the money in phase two will also be used for staffing and more PPE, as well.

“The state is funding in at the bottom, so it will be directed to the people, residents and staff, with public accountability for its use,” Comerford said. “It’s not going to go to profit margins for these for-profit facilities.”

Comerford said the state will also deploy clinical response teams to nursing homes that need them. Each team will consist of 10 nurses and certified personal assistants. She said those teams would go in at a nursing home’s request and help with care and other issues.

She said an initial audit will be done in each facility to provide a baseline, and then regular audits will be done to make sure nursing homes are meeting all state criteria for care.

“We wanted to ‘turbo charge’ our nursing homes,” Comerford said. “The state wants workers to know we support them and value their work, but we also need to make sure everything is being done to protect residents.”

Comerford said the bottom line is that the care of elders across the state is imperative. She said it is also critical to attract workers with the goal of lessening absences in the nursing home sector right now as they are needed most.

The senator said the funding was created by executive order as part of a state of emergency. She said the Senate has been advocating tirelessly for funding and stricter regulations, working with the governor and officials in health and human services. She said though legislators have had to continue work as usual, as well, like working with municipalities on earmarks, grants, school funding, nursing homes and their residents have been a major priority.

“This all shows that advocacy matters,” she said. “It also shows that constituents must be vigilant and call their legislators and the state to get what they want — that’s what they did — and the local delegation has done some fierce work to get them what they wanted, and we will continue to do so.”



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