Saturday, January 9, 2021

Opinion: A ‘debacle’ — AARP slams entire nursing home establishment

By Brett Arends 

There’s plenty of blame to go around

Nine months and 72,000 nursing home deaths later…cleaning crews enter the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., on March 12.

John Moore/Getty Images

They knew.

The people in power knew, nine months ago, in March, that COVID-19 was almost uniquely lethal to the elderly.

Yet here we are, nine months later, and the carnage among our parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and elderly friends has been on a scale that’s hard to believe.

Just 0.4% of our fellow citizens live in nursing homes. But they have accounted for a staggering 26% of all Covid deaths. Total nursing home deaths involving Covid-19: At least 72,000, according to the federal government.

It’s one thing to fail to control a contagious virus in a general population. But failing to protect the elderly in institutions that are specifically designed to house and protect them is unconscionable.

And now the AARP, the interest group for Americans 50 and older, has weighed in — and has slammed almost the entire nursing home establishment for this year’s horrific carnage.

Federal bureaucrats, greedy managers, and stupid lawmakers all have to share the blame, the AARP says in devastating takedown.

Scandal No. 1? Probably the failure to roll out mandatory testing.

“The single greatest error of America’s response to the pandemic in nursing homes, most agree, was the failure to provide early and vast access to virus testing for residents and staff,” reports the AARP. “Without testing, nursing home staff focused on isolating residents who showed symptoms of the virus, while asymptomatic residents and staff continued to spread the virus throughout the facilities.”

Not until September did the federal government require nursing homes to test all residents for the disease. September. By then, a huge amount of damage had been done.

But the AARP reports that there is plenty of blame to go around.

For-profit nursing homes had much higher death rates than others, it points out, citing multiple studies. It notes that the government actually withdrew inspectors and ombudsmen from establishments, on the theory they might bring in the disease.

And it highlights the scandal of ignoring the risks from staff. Apparently it didn’t occur to anyone in charge that many nursing home staff were poorly paid aides and orderlies, often living in crowded conditions at home, traveling on public transportation, and working jobs in multiple homes to make ends meet.

Hmmm, what could possibly go wrong?

Then there are the absurd laws. “Under Medicaid law, states are required to pay for nursing home care for anyone who qualifies,” AARP notes. “States are not required to pay for the home- and community-based services that would help seniors stay in their homes.” The net result: Way too many people in nursing homes to begin with.

The AARP didn’t mention, though it should have, monumental blunders such as state governments instructing nursing homes to accept the sick and contagious.

There’s no real point blaming “greedy” investment managers, either. They’re going to do what they are allowed to. Publicly traded companies, and private equity companies, are paid to generate big returns for their stockholders – many of them public pension funds and state governments.

And the problem isn’t taxpayers. We’ve thrown $21 billion of public funds at nursing homes during this crisis, equal to about $17,000 per resident. But, as the AARP points out, most of it has been indiscriminate and ill thought out.

The real scandal is even broader than the AARP says.

As early as mid-March, the first official study of the Italian crisis reported on the risk to the elderly.

A staggering 90% of those who died when the disease swept Italy in late February and early March were over 70, the Italian health ministry reported back then. The median age was 81. All but a handful had certain pre-existing conditions. Most had two.

(The latest figures for New York City: Just 0.5% of the dead were under 65 and free of certain pre-existing conditions.)

So the people in power knew from the start that if they had to protect one group of people, it was sick, elderly people.

But this is what happened.

A lot of this, frankly, is about power. Very old people don’t have it. They are almost completely powerless, physically and otherwise. So there is little payback when they are neglected, abused or left to die. So even if people in the prime of life care, they may not care that much.

My question is this: Do people in the prime of life understand that one day they, too, will be old and vulnerable?

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