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In a show of “disappointment” over the latest coronavirus relief package introduced Monday by Senate Republicans, senior living leaders said the proposed legislation does not yet acknowledge the “fundamental truth” that “older lives are not expendable.”

Six months into the pandemic, LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan and a cadre of aging services leaders from some of the hardest hit states — including Arizona, Florida, Texas, North Carolina and New Jersey — said Wednesday that there has been a “woefully insufficient national response” to the pandemic for older adults. 

LeadingAge provided a snapshot of the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act, noting that the proposed legislation lacks a dedicated fund for aging services providers, testing funds and a national testing strategy, personal protective equipment solutions, help for older adults in affordable housing, and staffing provisions. 

Stephen Fleming, president and CEO of the Well-Spring Group in North Carolina, said the majority of private-pay providers in assisted living and independent living are not connected to a federal reimbursement program and have received “no relief whatsoever.” The HEALS Act is no different, he added.

“Where there should have been a concerted effort around aging services, regardless of service type, there wasn’t,” Fleming said.

The group collectively called on Congress to develop a “singular and consistent national plan” addressing testing, PPE and workforce issues to protect vulnerable older adults from the worst pandemic in a century.

Pam Koester, CEO of LeadingAge Arizona, said her 70 members are struggling to maintain and support their workforce, which she referred to as “our infantry.”

“Every one of our members is short on staffing,” Koester said, adding that staff members who continue to show up are working 70-plus hours a week. “Our members are spending an average of over $67,000 per month on PPE due to COVID-19, out of their own pockets, without any financial support. They’ve spent over $600,000 on testing out of their own pockets. This is not sustainable.”

LeadingAge Florida President and CEO Steve Bahmer said the”COVID-19 storm” already is here, and he described it as a Category 5 storm. Costs related to staffing, PPE and testing have his members realizing increased operating costs ranging from $100,000 to $3 million per month, Bahmer said, adding that long-term care has not experienced the waning of cases in between the surges.

“Our members are performing at peak levels for several weeks,” he said. “Staff are afraid, exhausted and increasingly reluctant to come to work. Our work is providing intimate, compassionate care for our parents, grandparents, family friends and neighbors.

“This path is unsustainable. These folks need relief, and they need it now.”

Fleming said that access to appropriate PPE and testing continues to be a struggle, keeping residents isolated from family and friends.

“Without personal protective equipment and testing, we cannot have visitation. What do we say to families that are at our doorsteps, begging to see loved ones?” he said. “To deny them the basic human right of socialization because we cannot as a society come up with testing is wrong. I urge Congress not to abandon us now.”

Carol Silver Elliott, a board chair of LeadingAge and president and CEO of Jewish Home Family in New Jersey, said her community is in a “fight for our lives.” 

“We’re FedEx-ing tests to an out-of-state lab and wait days for results, at a cost of $50,000 a week — costs that are not picked up by the state or feds. To this day, our most reliable source of PPE is someone whose name we still don’t know, who we just call ‘parking lot guy,’ ” Elliott said. “It is a tragedy and a disgrace that the fight to save the lives of older adults — the fight of our lives — is being waged without support, without resources, without help.”

She called on Congress to step forward and “take a leadership role to fight to save our elders. They are the people whose wisdom guided us and created everything we have today.”

“We need Congress to act, and we need them to act now,” Sloan said. “Every minute that goes by, another life is needlessly lost.”