House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, is intensifying pressure on Gov. Ralph Northam to use federal emergency coronavirus aid to provide hazard pay and paid leave to health attendants who have no backup if they get sick while caring for elderly and disabled Virginians in their homes.
Torian urged Northam on Tuesday to use money that Virginia received under the federal CARES Act to provide $23.1 million in hazard pay through the end of the year and up to $7.8 million for two weeks of paid leave for personal care attendants who tend to Medicaid recipients in their homes instead of long-term care institutions.
He also reminded the governor that almost all home health aides in Virginia are women and more than half of them are African American, earning an average of $9.40 an hour in most of the state without any paid leave if they become infected with COVID-19.
“Some may wonder whether the roadblocks to providing this pandemic support to home care workers would be more easily navigated if the vast majority were not double minorities,” he said in the two-page letter. “Women of color are, still, being asked to care for our most vulnerable without adequate protection or just compensation for themselves.”
State finance officials say they haven’t made a decision on the request, but they recognize the need to help aides who work directly for people in Virginia’s Medicaid program who otherwise could require more costly care in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.
“It is an issue, there’s no question about it,” Deputy Secretary of Finance Joe Flores said Tuesday.
The timing for a decision is complicated by the likelihood that Northam plans to call the General Assembly into special session as early as mid-August. During that session lawmakers will act on revised revenue forecasts to support a two-year budget that has been in jeopardy since the governor declared a public health emergency on March 12, the same day the legislature adopted the spending plan.
The assembly froze more than $2 billion in budgeted spending the next month, including $9.6 million it had previously approved to pay home health attendants for up to 16 hours a week in overtime. Lawmakers will have to decide during the special session how much spending they can afford and what their priorities will be.
Those spending decisions also may be influenced by $1.8 billion that Virginia has received under the CARES Act to pay for the expenses of fighting the coronavirus pandemic, including pay for health care workers.
Torian said Tuesday the funding sought for home health attendants is “not a great deal of money” for people doing essential work during the pandemic.
“Home care workers have told us what they need,” he said. “Federal funding allows us to meet their requests while our state budget remains in limbo.”
Spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said the governor “appreciates this input and values his strong partnership with Chair Torian.”
“The governor and his team continue to review requests for future Coronavirus Relief Fund allocations, but are pleased to have already allocated over $500 million for PPE, COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and support for long term care facilities, to name a few,” Yarmosky said.
Virginia’s Medicaid program plans to spend $9.2 million from the CARES Act to provide personal protective equipment — face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer — to people receiving home health care and the attendants that provide it.
The program has distributed masks to people whose services are paid directly by the state, but is still preparing to distribute cloth masks to those who receive Medicaid services through managed care insurance companies.
“We have received approval for distribution of gloves and sanitizers as well,” said Christina Nuckols, spokeswoman for the Department of Medical Assistance Services.
David Broder, president of the Service Employees International Union 512, commended the state for “taking baby steps” by providing protective gear.
“But if we are really going to protect health care workers and we are really going to make sure older individuals stay out of nursing homes, the governor needs to provide hazard pay and paid leave to health care workers,” Broder said.
State officials say the request for hazard pay — which would date from April 1 to the end of the year — appears to follow the federal rules for the money more clearly than the funding for at least one week of paid leave.
Two weeks of paid leave would cost the state $7.8 million and one week would cost $2.8 million.
“We did not provide paid leave for our own employees because we couldn’t determine if it was directly related to COVID-19,” Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne said. “Hazard pay may be a more direct relationship.”
Broder doesn’t agree with the distinction for health aides on the front line of the pandemic.
“Whether they get a fever or their client gets a fever, it’s directly related to COVID,” he said. “It’s an urgent issue.”