Care facilities seek virus relief

Homes asking lawmakers to extend aid

The state Department of Human Services this week urged the General Assembly to renew the Regional Response Health Collaborative program, in which hospitals help nursing, personal care and assisted living facilities contend with the coronavirus, because the program is set to expire Dec. 1.

The Presbyterian Village and The Lutheran Home at Hollidaysburg have taken advantage of the assistance and appreciate it, according to officials with those homes.

“We’ve relied on (the program) as a resource to help with some of our planning,” said Jeremy Schrader, executive director of the Presbyterian Village.

“We believe it would be of great service to the long-term care communities throughout the commonwealth for this program to continue until COVID-19 is no longer a threat,” Allegheny Lutheran Social Ministries spokeswoman Andrea Schurr wrote in an email.

The program provides “clinical, operational and educational support,” according to a DHS news release this week detailing issues discussed in a Zoom call featuring DHS Secretary Teresa Miller, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine and officials from Penn State Health, which has been helping facilities in the state’s south central health district, where Blair, Bedford and Huntingdon counties are located.

“I’m in favor of getting nursing homes what they need,” said state Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona. “The question is whether we have enough days and time to get the budget done and (to take care of those kinds of) issues.”

Still, it’s especially important to make long-term care facilities as safe as possible, because their populations are “so vulnerable,” Schmitt said.

The 2019-20 session of the General Assembly is scheduled to convene only today and on Nov. 10 for a lame duck, post-election session that will include lawmakers who are retiring or who have lost elections, Schmitt said.

The RRHC (pronounced “Rick”) enabled The Lutheran Home “to become COVID-free in a relatively short time frame,” Schurr wrote. The home has been COVID-19-free for six weeks, she wrote.

In late August, the home reported that 27 residents and 25 staffers had tested positive, after the first case surfaced at the end of July.

The Pennsylvania National Guard provided 14 service members to help the home during the outbreak.

The hospital program helped Presbyterian Village “put a plan on top of a plan on top of a plan,” Schrader said. “We didn’t want to be working from behind,” he said.

The help began with site visits from members of the Penn State Health team, he said.

The program also helped secure additional PPE for the Presbyterian Village, Schrader said.

So far, the home hasn’t had to activate the backup plans, “but I assure you, we felt a lot better” with them in place, Schrader said.

He trusts that lawmakers will “do whatever they see is best,” he said, in regard to the possible extension.

The Presbyterian Village has had 38 positive cases, six still active, according to Schrader. There have been nine deaths.

The home has followed “every bit of guidance” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the state Department of Health, he said.

The help provided for long-term care facilities throughout the state has included preparation for the possibility of outbreaks, stabilization of outbreaks when they occur, procurement of personal protective equipment, help so workers use that equipment properly, resources for dealing with staffing shortages and infection control, according to state officials.

Eleven health systems are participating.

In the southcentral region, Penn State Health has conducted 734 “missions” and 25 “rapid response deployments,” according to state officials.

“The pandemic of our lifetime feels like the mission of our lifetime,” said Dr. Nicole Osevala, leader of the Penn State Health team.

The Penn State team has helped some homes in older buildings deal with “air-handling” issues, some by introduction of ultraviolet disinfection, according to Osevala.

The team has also helped corporate leaders come to a better realization of challenges faced by administrators of individual homes where there have been outbreaks, especially the need for massive volumes of PPE or increased staffing levels, she said.

“We get engaged,” she said. “We advocate.”

The DHS is “keenly aware” of the Dec. 1 sunset date, DHS’s Miller said.

“We’re frankly nervous,” she stated. “We cannot lose this resource.”

The program has been a success, and will continue to be necessary, given the impending flu season and long-term facilities being “closely tied to community spread,” she said.

The General Assembly authorized the program in July through Act 24, allocating $175 million.

Even if some of that money is left, it can’t be spent on the program, but must be returned after the sunset date, unless the program is extended, according to Jamie Buchenauer, director of the Bureau of Fee-for-Service Programs at DHS.

The Wolf administration recently sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking for money to facilitate that extension, according to a DHS news release.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.


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