Senior living owners and operators will face a “challenging public policy environment” now that two Democrats unofficially have been declared the winners of two runoff U.S. Senate races in Georgia on Wednesday, meaning the party soon will have narrow control of both chambers of Congress as well as the presidency.

That’s according to Argentum President and CEO James Balda, speaking after victories were called for Jon Ossoff, who beat incumbent David Perdue, and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who beat Sen. Kelly Loeffler; both will become U.S. senators representing the Peach State once the election results are certified, which is expected to occur before Joe Biden is sworn in as president Jan. 20. Perdue’s term as senator ended Sunday, and Loeffler’s will end once Warnock’s term begins.

Balda said that the results of the November election and this week’s runoffs, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, present an environment for senior living “unlike any it has seen in its 30-plus years.”

Argentum, he added, now expects that the new Congress will be focusing on several issues that will affect the senior living industry, including long-term care tax relief, Medicaid expansion, union/labor-organizing issues, and COVID-19-related activity such as infection prevention and control efforts, emergency preparedness and training.

American Seniors Housing Association President David Schless also said that, with Democrats in Congress chairing the committees, calling the hearings, deciding which issues to prioritize and determining what bills to bring to the floor, more focus could be put on the senior living industry.

“Some we will welcome, such as COVID-19 relief and immigration policies to support workforce needs, as well as some that may be more challenging, such as liability protection and federal oversight,” he said. “But unless they change the filibuster rules, they will still need 60 votes to pass a bill in the Senate, making purely partisan issues difficult to move.”

COVID relief

A Democratic-controlled Senate could improve chances for continued financial relief for senior living providers struggling with declines in occupancy and increased expenses due to the pandemic, Balda said. “However, we anticipate it will hinder progress on liability reform legislation, shifting our focus to the state level,” he added.

Argentum will continue to work to expand on earlier successes with executive orders and legislation providing “reasonable” liability protections in states such as Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Oklahoma, among others, Balda added.

Schless said the narrow margin by which Democrats will control the Senate and the House of Representatives means that the Biden administration will need to strive for bipartisan cooperation, even though Democrats will have broader opportunities to pursue their policy agenda. “This should put a check on purely partisan issues from becoming law,” he said.

ASHA is encouraged that Biden’s first priority is to address the COVID-19 pandemic, Schless said. “He will seek a large COVID-19 relief package, address timely vaccine distribution and enhance testing capabilities,” he predicted. “These are areas of common need, and we look forward to working with the administration and the new Congress to secure key wins for the industry.”

Schless, too, however, wondered whether liability protections for senior living providers will be able to be secured in the new political environment, but he said that as large stimulus packages start to come together, Democrats will need Republican support and may be open to tradeoffs.

“We believe this limited protection is necessary given the unprecedented nature and challenges of this pandemic and should be on the table,” he said.

The prospect of federal regulation

A Congress controlled by the Democrats also increases the prospect of proposed federal regulation on the industry as the country grapples with the long-term effects of the pandemic, Balda said. 

“Regulatory oversight remains a strong concern with either party in control of the Senate, however, which is why at Argentum, we’ll be continuing our work to get senior living communities the COVID-19-related resources and relief they need, to protect the industry against misguided legislation, and to guard against efforts to introduce burdensome regulatory oversight,” he said, adding that the organization looks forward to working with the Biden administration and new Congress to ensure that older adults are protected.

“Now, more than ever, the industry needs to unite to ensure that the person-centered model of care — which has been the hallmark of our industry — continues to thrive and serve millions of seniors around the country,” Balda said.

Schless, too, said that the call for some level of federal regulation of the senior living industry may gain some traction in the Democrat-controlled Congress. “But this will also present us with the opportunity to educate policymakers about the significant benefits of seniors housing and how better outcomes can be achieved in our communities while suitably regulated at the state level,” he said.

A agenda for Congress

Representatives for the National Center for Assisted Living and LeadingAge said they would wait until the election results were official to comment on their potential impacts on senior living. Tuesday, however, LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan sent a letter to all current members of Congress asking for support on key legislative actions to preserve the nation’s system of aging and long-term care services.

“We look forward to working with you on legislative proposals that will ensure aging services providers have the vaccines, testing, personal protective equipment (PPE), workforce, and financial resources they desperately need to continue providing the high-quality services and supports they are committed to delivering,” wrote Sloan, who also is the acting president and CEO of VNAA/ElevatingHOME.

She also noted issues related to workforce, low-income seniors housing, state funding and  the continuation of public health emergency waivers as deserving of attention in Congress.

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