Legislators seek more reporting from elder care facilities

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

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

Staff Writer
Published: 5/15/2020 1:13:26 PM
Modified: 5/15/2020 1:13:14 PM

The House passed and sent legislation to the Senate requiring nursing homes, assisted living facilities and senior housing to track COVID-19 cases and deaths, and report them daily to local and state public health officials. But the Senate has since returned the bill, adding accountability.

“We can’t just ask that this be reported and then not do anything about any issues that arise,” said Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton. “The Senate wanted to make this bill as strong as possible.”

State legislators, like others, have found it difficult at times to obtain that type of information since the pandemic began earlier this year, and Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, said they wanted to see some changes.

“Local and state health officials, families of our elders and the public have the right to know what’s happening,” Mark said. “We want to make sure that happens. These places, in particular, are hot spots for COVID-19, and we have to make sure we’ve got all the preventative measures in place.”

Mark said as each day passes, more testing is being done and more personal protective equipment and other necessities are being provided, but that needs to keep trending. It’s up to legislators to make sure of it.

“This is certainly nerve-wracking for everyone, but especially for the elderly living in these facilities and their loved ones,” he said.

Mark said he understands firsthand, because his 94-year-old grandmother lives in a facility outside of Franklin County, and his family calls daily to make sure all is going well. He said the bill came from “a lot of ideas.”

“This would be a good thing for everyone across the state,” he said.

Mark said, for instance, the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke was a “terrible event,” with more than 70 residents dying of the virus and more than 75 still testing positive. He said it the situation would have been better if the severity had been reported early on, so maybe something else could have been done or help could have come earlier.

“We all watched that unfold and it was absolutely horrendous,” he said.

Many cities and towns, including Greenfield, are doing well to keep track of what’s going on in their facilities, Mark said, but he believes it has to go beyond that so the public has access to numbers.

Currently, nursing homes report to the state Department of Public Health, but House legislators would like to see reporting extend to families and the public. Mark said legislators, including himself, have received calls from concerned family members who have said they can’t always get the kind of information they’d like from some facilities.

“This is in the public’s interest for many reasons,” he said.

According to the House bill, the Department of Public Health would make updated data publicly available daily, including the name of the facility and number of known COVID-19 positive cases and deaths of residents and staff. Facilities would also have to report the numbers daily to residents’ families, guardians and legally authorized representatives.

Additionally, the Department of Public Health would also have to report the weekly number of positive cases and deaths, including race, age and sex, in aggregate form to the House and Senate Ways and Means committees.

Mark’s colleague Rep. Ruth Balser, D-Newton, who chairs the Joint Committee on Elder Affairs, said long-term facilities, assisted living residences and elder housing facilities are the epicenter of the public health crisis.

“Those with loved ones in these residences, and the larger community, are understandably alarmed,” she said.

The Senate-amended bill, if passed by the House and Senate and signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, would also request data that identifies trends, testing, infection, hospitalization and deaths based on demographic factors.

“We wanted to go even further in the bill,” Comerford said. “It is a very strong bill in terms of transparency of data and public reporting, but we felt it needed the accountability piece. The bill is quite comprehensive.”

The bill, she added, not only asks the administration to react quickly when it sees problems, but also to release an action plan for the disparities it finds in the data.

“We have to be accountable for what we find in the data,” she said.

Comerford said she doesn’t see many, if any, issues with the changes the Senate made, but said the House will have to reconcile the bill in a conference committee if it does have issues. Then the bill will return to the Senate for consideration again before being sent to Gov. Baker.

“We just want to make sure from this point that we’re righting any wrongs,” Comerford said.

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-9591 or afritz@recorder.com.

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