Two days ago, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) in Washington, released a report that helps explain why COVID-19 has devastated nursing homes across the United States. The GAO analyzed data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services from 2013-2017 and discovered that 82% of nursing homes received citations for cutting corners or lapses in infection controls.
Ron Wyden, the Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee which oversees Medicare and Medicaid, commented about the GAO’s report saying: “This new report shows that warning signs were ignored and nursing homes were unprepared to face a pandemic. For years nursing home surveys pointed out areas where federal standards for nursing home safety and enforcement efforts should be improved, but the Trump administration chose not to correct them. Too many seniors and their families have suffered as a result of this pandemic, and there need to be big changes in the way nursing homes care for seniors.”
In any given year between 2013 and 2019, approximately 40% of nursing homes surveyed by the GAO had deficiencies in infection control or prevention.
Based on the GAO data, is it any wonder that nursing homes across the United States are reporting massive numbers of COVID infections and deaths? The New York Times reports that more than 30,000 deaths have so far occurred at long-term care facilities in the US, fully a third of all COVID deaths since the epidemic started.
Facilities should have been fully equipped to deal with the novel Coronavirus if they had followed CDC guidelines. Unfortunately, operators of such homes prioritized profits over safety. They understaffed, they failed to screen patients and staff, they failed to purchase basic PPE such as gloves and masks, and they failed to take steps to quarantine residents at the first signs of infection. The reasons are obvious: Hiring fewer staff saves money, not purchasing equipment saves money, not setting up quarantines saves money because space in nursing homes is limited. It’s cheaper to let residents eat in common dining rooms instead of taking meals to them individually in their rooms.
The question isn’t whether nursing home deaths could have been prevented. From the recent news reports coming out of Hong Kong, where it is reported that zero nursing home deaths have occurred, it’s clear that lapses in safety led to massive numbers of deaths. The question now is whether we will hold these facilities, and the parent corporations that own them, accountable for what is clearly elder neglect. Lobbyists working for the chains are in Washington trying to persuade our elected officials that they should be given immunity, similar to the provision slipped into a New York budget bill in April 2020.
Shielding health facilities from lawsuits is foolish and shortsighted. As long as such corporations are allowed to operate with impunity, people will die, and nursing homes will continue to be ground zero for every future pandemic.
Attorney Wendy York of York Law Firm specializes in prosecuting elder abuse and wrongful death cases.
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