It’s not surprising that the first coronavirus hotspot in the U.S. was at a nursing home in Washington State, and that in the months since residents and staff in long-term care facilities have been ravaged by the virus. It’s also not surprising that the industry, with its huge and powerful lobbying force at the state and federal level, is succeeding at limiting its liability for the deaths of residents.
A Politico review has found that at least 20 states—led by both Republicans and Democrats—have already taken action in the last 10 weeks to limit the legal liability the facilities have in failing to provide a safe environment for the people in their care. Politico reviewed state and federal records and found the industry has spent millions lobbying the states in the past year, and has spent $4 million just at the federal level, “employing more than a dozen full-time lobbyists and drawing on an army of contractors including Brian Ballard, former lobbyist for President Donald Trump, and ex-Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman.” They want the same success they’ve achieved in the states extended to them at the federal level in the next coronavirus response bill, leaving an already high-risk population even more vulnerable. “The stuff that we’re seeing, it’s pretty awful,” Brian Lee, a former ombudsman and executive director of Families for Better Care, an advocacy group focusing on long-term care told Politico. “The ask from the industry is sweeping. This is about the owners protecting their business and their profits.”
“They’re supposed to have emergency plans in place,” he continued. “It’s supposed to include how to work through a pandemic. They were supposed to be ready for this, they’re not.” They’re not because they haven’t had to be because they have so much political power and in so many states regulation and enforcement of them is very weak. At the federal level, they’ve already got one big win from the Trump administration which watered down policies from the Obama administration that would have prevented nursing homes from forcing residents to resolve any disputes through arbitration rather than the courts.
While the long-term care industry makes enough profit to hire dozens and dozens of lobbyists and spend millions in legislatures and the state capitols, it won’t spend that money to hire enough staff to care for the people it’s making all that money off of. In researching the deficiencies at one nursing home that has more than a dozen cases of coronavirus, the Stoney Point Healthcare Center near Los Angeles, CBS News found that “roughly one in 15 U.S. nursing homes was cited last year for failing to meet standards for ‘sufficient nursing staff.'” That lack of staff is compounded in this pandemic because staff is getting ill too, and not showing up to work.
Making the situation for nursing homes even worse, family members are barred from visiting now, and are unable to check up on care and advocate for their loved ones, or report neglect. “Knowing the public regulatory system is pretty weak, they want to stop any other place where they would be held accountable—and that would be litigation,” Toby Edelman, an attorney with the Center for Medicare Advocacy, told Politico. “To me, that’s a frightening combination,” said Edelman, referring to the protection against lawsuits and the lack of family and outside advocates with access to check up on what’s happening inside the facilities.
Nursing homes account for about 40% of deaths in this pandemic in the U.S.—as far as we know. Some states simply don’t release the data, and some states just have terrible reporting overall. The idea that they could have complete immunity from being held accountable for those deaths is horrifying.
But it’s what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy are fighting for. They say that broad immunity for all business—including nursing homes—is “absolutely essential” for them to agree to the next bill.