COLUMBUS, Ohio — Highbanks Care Center is a 56 bed nursing facility with short and long-term rehabilitation services, Tuesday, April 13, 2021 Graham Stokes/Photographer
The Ohio Senate passed legislation Wednesday giving nursing homes $300 million earmarked to pay their workers.
The payment is part of a $4.18 billion appropriation of federal pandemic relief money. The bulk of the funds go toward schools ($2.49 billion); workforce incentives for health care providers like rural or “distressed” hospitals, plus assisted living and community-based senior care providers ($1 billion); childcare grants through the Department of Jobs and Family Services ($667 million); and crime reduction and other law enforcement grants ($250 million).
The nursing home funds must go to direct-care staff by way of pay, bonuses and incentives; they can’t go toward facility executives, owners or staffing agency labor.
The funds are aimed at what the nursing home calls a “historic workforce crisis” — the American Health Care Association says nursing homes lost an estimated 234,000 jobs nationally since the pandemic began. This stems in part from poor wages and a staffing shortfall that predated the pandemic, along with COVID-19 and its ensuing havoc and increased costs of care.
Pete Van Runkle, a lobbyist with the Ohio arm of the AHCA, said the money comes with other restrictions but generally must go to workers.
However, Robert Applebaum, a Miami University gerontology professor and researcher, said it’s not so simple. Nursing homes could just use other reimbursement funds for executives or staffing agency pay.
“[I’m] not sure how you keep funds from going to owners,” he said.
Applebaum said in a prior interview the money represents a lost opportunity to crack down on an industry with a long history of infection control problems.
During the pandemic, federal regulators cited 897 Ohio nursing homes with infection control violations, according to a spreadsheet obtained via public records request. Several dozen yielded findings of “immediate jeopardy,” the most severe violation.
Meanwhile, about 40% of nursing home caregivers remain unvaccinated against COVID-19, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. About 1 in 3 of Ohio’s 27,000 COVID-19 deaths came from nursing home residents, according to state data.
Senate Finance Chairman Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, said any quality or vaccination problems in state nursing homes are a separate issue. The bill, he said, is about preserving the workforce.
“This bill is trying to get money into workers hands so they stay in the health care industry,” he said.
The bill now goes to the Ohio House of Representatives, where a Republican lawmaker has introduced a standalone $300 million payment for nursing homes via federal funds. The bill, introduced by Rep. Sara Carruthers, R-Hamilton, doesn’t earmark the legislation for the industry’s work force like the Senate version. At a recent hearing, Carruthers said she’d be open to an amendment to blocking the funds from any nursing home that requires its workers get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Passage of either bill would mark a win for the nursing home industry, whose PACS, executives and lobby group have contributed $6 million to Ohio politics between 2016 and 2020, according to an Ohio Capital Journal investigation. Most the money went to state lawmakers, who maintain control over the state’s $6.2 billion in Medicaid spending that funds the bulk of the industry in Ohio.
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