The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT)
CT nursing homes are requesting more money
State officials are noncommittal
State officials were noncommittal this month when responding to a voluminous request for funding from the nursing home industry, which is struggling to staff its facilities and keep up with soaring inflation.
The nursing homes, stung by chronic staffing issues and wage pressure, had asked for $193 million more in aid to help sustain struggling elder care facilities. The state’s social services budget allows for an additional $28 million. Leaders at the department did not immediately agree to send more money to the sector.
“We look forward to continued discussions as we work to improve the lives of Connecticut nursing home residents,” wrote Andrea Barton Reeves, commissioner of the state Department of Social Services.
But lawmakers and advocates say they want to see greater transparency on nursing home spending before signing off on such a request, arguing the state has already provided the industry with millions of dollars in extra funding during COVID.
Matthew Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, and Mag Morelli, head of LeadingAge Connecticut, which together represent 186 of Connecticut’s 205 nursing homes, wrote in a Nov. 30 letter to the state that there is an “urgent need” for additional funding.
“We are writing to you once more to ask you to provide additional financial relief to our state’s skilled nursing facilities as they endeavor to provide quality care during this now elongated and unrelenting environment of double-digit inflation and increasing staffing costs,” they wrote.
From February 2020 to December 2022, the nursing home industry lost 210,000 jobs nationally, and staffing fell to levels not seen since 1994, officials with the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living said.
Facilities added an average of 3,700 jobs per month over the last nine months. At the current pace, staffing would not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2027, AHCA noted.
In Connecticut, understaffing has led to widespread problems in some facilities. The CT Mirror reported that Athena, one of the largest long-term care providers in the state, has come under the scrutiny of officials in three New England states after receiving consistent complaints about conditions in its nursing homes.
Athena is facing numerous lawsuits alleging it owes money to temporary employment agencies that provided workers to short-staffed facilities. The company is also accused of failing to pay nearly $6 million in employee health benefits and has faced consent orders at facilities in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Residents of some Athena homes complained of being stranded in bed for long stretches of time, missing meals or medications and being unable to attend daily activities. Family members described their loved ones as unkempt during visits. Residents have reported regularly missing showers and haircuts.
In some homes, residents say they’ve seen a single nursing aide assigned to 20 people. A typical ratio to ensure good care is one worker to every eight or 10 people, the state’s long term care ombudsman has said.
The state Department of Public Health recently placed one of Athena’s facilities, the Newtown Rehabilitation and Health Care Center, under immediate jeopardy because of troubling conditions found when inspectors visited the building. Immediate jeopardy occurs when violations cause or are likely to cause serious harm or death. Athena fixed the problems in less than two days, and the order was lifted.
But nursing home officials and state investigators say Athena’s problems are not isolated and that staffing shortages and cost increases are affecting care in many facilities.
Barbara Cass, chief of DPH’s health care quality and safety branch, said the department issued four immediate jeopardy orders across Connecticut nursing homes during the last quarter from Mystic to Windsor.
“It’s really the staffing,” Morelli said of the funding request. “And it’s not just direct care staff, all staff costs have gone up. There’s been very real pressure on the cost side and not getting [enough] on the revenue side.”
Legislators, advocates call for more transparency
Lawmakers and advocates acknowledge the situation in nursing homes is dire and must be addressed. But while some are supportive of sending additional funds, many say greater transparency is needed to show exactly how managers are spending the money.
“There’s been no accountability for where this money went,” said Mairead Painter, Connecticut’s long-term care ombudsman. “[The state has] given them lots of dollars since COVID — lots of lots of money. Where did this money go? Because it’s not going to the staff and the residents that we can see.”
During the first year of the pandemic, the state announced more than $90 million for nursing homes to help deal with plunging occupancy, staffing costs and protective gear, among other expenses.