On the same day that Virginia’s COVID-19 deaths reached 1,000 in long-term care facilities, Gov. Ralph Northam said Friday that the state will devote $246 million in mostly federal money to help nursing homes and assisted living facilities cope with a public health emergency that has hit them hard.
At the same time, the state began releasing information about COVID-19 cases and deaths at specific nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, as Northam ended the state’s policy of not doing so. However, the new Virginia Department of Health data still suppressed counts of cases and deaths at some facilities “to preserve anonymity.”
The governor’s package includes $152 million that nursing homes already are receiving directly from federal emergency relief funds for health care providers to pay for the costs of the coronavirus pandemic. It also includes $41 million in federal and state Medicaid money that the General Assembly has approved to pay for a $20 monthly stipend for each nursing home resident whose care is paid by Medicaid during the emergency.
Northam is directing that $53 million of the $1.8 billion that Virginia has received under the federal CARES Act go to nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The amount includes $20 million for assisted living centers, which have been excluded from previous federal and state relief because they do not receive funding under the Medicare and Medicaid programs.
“The lockdowns of long-term care facilities to protect residents and staff from the spread of COVID-19 have been hard on residents and their families,” Northam said Friday. “These actions will help support long-term care facilities as they ease those restrictions, while keeping their residents safe and ensuring that the public gets accurate information on the spread of this virus in these facilities.”
The governor also directed the Virginia Department of Health to release the names of nursing homes and assisted living facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks, reversing a previous state policy to treat the facilities as people to protect the confidentiality of medical records.
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, whose district has been hit hard by COVID-19 cases and deaths in long-term care facilities, rebuked the governor for not releasing the information sooner instead of shielding it behind laws to protect patient confidentiality.
“I cannot fathom the reasoning behind the Governor’s announcement today,” Gilbert said Friday. “Families have sought this information — information they could use to protect their loved ones from a lethal threat — for months. Now, after the body count in nursing homes reaches 1,000, the governor has reversed course.
“If it is legal to release the information now, it was legal to release it when it was first requested,” he said. “Perhaps, had the governor not been distracted by his political rehabilitation, he could have realized this earlier and lives could have been saved. Incompetence kills, and there is a great deal of incompetence from this governor.”
Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said the spread of COVID-19 in Virginia makes it “less likely that releasing this information would compromise anonymity or limit cooperation with a public health investigation.”
She said the governor also is identifying facilities in part because of “inconsistent information” the federal Medicare program has released for nursing homes.
“Governor Northam has always been committed to providing as much information as possible under state law,” Yarmosky said. “We are confident that given these new circumstances, this decision will ensure the maximum transparency allowed under the code.
Keith Hare, president and CEO of the Virginia Health Care Association and the Virginia Center for Assisted Living, said of the expanded reporting: “This information shows what we have known for months, which is that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts seniors with chronic conditions and the dedicated staff who care for them.”
“We know that full transparency and real-time, accurate data being made available will validate our calls for assistance that nursing homes and assisted living centers have been making since the beginning of this pandemic,” said Hare, who represents nearly 300 nursing homes and 100 assisted living facilities.
Through Friday morning, long-term care facilities in Virginia accounted for 6,519 COVID-19 cases and 1,000 deaths, or 62% of the 1,602 fatalities documented by the VDH.
Northam is directing that $56 million of the funding package go to nursing homes to pay for frequent testing of employees and residents under new federal Medicare requirements for nursing facilities to reopen to families and other visitors.
The money is a combination of federal aid under the CARES Act grant to Virginia and the Provider Relief Fund that Congress established for health care providers, Deputy Secretary of Finance Joe Flores said Friday.
Flores said Virginia’s long-term care industry had asked for $384 million from the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund, established in the budget in April to include money from the CARES Act and other sources. But he said the state wants nursing facilities to rely first on the $152 million the federal government provided to them directly.
“We’re going to ask them to exhaust that first and then we’ll step in,” Flores said.
Hare said money to pay for testing is critical to identify asymptomatic carriers of the virus as long-term care facilities prepare to reopen to visitors. He estimates the cost of testing staff at $4.5 million a week for all nursing facilities in the state.
“We appreciate the state’s recognition of the financial needs that our nursing and assisted living facilities will face as they work diligently to prevent future outbreaks,” he said.
Virginia hospitals immediately called for more financial support from the state on Friday to cover their uncompensated costs of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association asked Northam to set aside $1 billion — or one-third of the $3.1 billion that Virginia received for state and local government relief under the CARES Act — for a new Coronavirus Hospital Stabilization and Relief Program.
Association spokesman Julian Walker said direct federal relief to hospitals had covered costs from treating COVID-19 patients, testing for the disease and purchasing personal protective equipment for their staffs.
“However, Virginia hospitals made additional investments to meet the challenges of responding to COVID-19 in preparation for COVID patients who never materialized,” Walker said.