Stop the Bickering and Act

Conversations with Katie | August 06, 2020

Katie Smith Sloan, LeadingAge President & CEO, wants to know why government leaders are abandoning us during the COVID hurricane.

The nightly television news over the past week in Washington, DC and around the country featured 2 strong images that will come to epitomize our summer of 2020.

The first image: Congressional leaders of both parties, standing at their respective podiums, bickering and debating the pros and cons of the second coronavirus relief bill, officially known as the HEALS Act.

The second image: Hurricane Isaias making its way to the Florida coast, and then leaving a path of destruction up the East Coast, through the nation’s capital, and onward to New England.

Listening to Isaias’s rain battering my own house in Washington brought home the chilling words of Steve Bahmer, president & CEO of LeadingAge Florida.

"If the coronavirus were a hurricane, it would be a Category-5,” he told a gathering of media representatives last Thursday on Zoom.

That COVID hurricane has arrived, Steve warned. It has already brought disastrous outcomes to the most vulnerable in its path. Over 442,000 positive cases of coronavirus in Florida alone. Over 6,000 deaths in that state, 45% of which have occurred in the long-term care setting.

And yet, the government officials who are typically on the front lines of natural disasters—visiting flooded neighborhoods and urging immediate relief for hurricane victims—are nowhere to be seen in the wake of the COVID hurricane. They are bickering about solutions, rather than throwing COVID-19 victims and first responders the lifelines they desperately need. And the situation just gets worse and worse.

We are experiencing this COVID hurricane throughout the country, but particularly in “hot-spot” states like Arizona, Texas, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Florida. LeadingAge members from each of those states were on our call last week to share with reporters their own stories of struggle and frustration.

Pam Koester, CEO of Arizona LeadingAge, reported that her members, on average, are spending over $67,000 per month on COVID-related personal protective equipment (PPE) and $600,000 on testing, all out of their own pockets without any help from the federal government. George Linial, president & CEO of LeadingAge Texas, warned that these extraordinary costs may force some members to close their doors.

Everyone on the call told stories of desperate need, and all shared their frustration that the HEALS Act does not go nearly far enough to meet that need, chiefly because it:

  • Includes no funds dedicated to aging services providers.
  • Offers only a fraction of the $100 billion dollars needed to protect older adults from COVID-19.
  • Does not address the needs of more than 750,000 older adults living in HUD-assisted housing.
  • Contains inadequate testing provisions, and no comprehensive and coordinated national testing strategy.
  • Responds insufficiently to the urgent immediate need for PPE.
  • Offers no Hero’s Pay for frontline workers.

The bottom line? Congress needs to deliver more.

Stephen Fleming, president & CEO of The Well•Spring Group in North Carolina, summed up the dilemma in terms LeadingAge members can appreciate. Lack of testing and PPE are putting the physical safety of older people at risk. But lack of federal support for testing and PPE is also having a devastating effect on the emotional well-being of elders and their families. It’s a problem we could fix with help from Washington. But Washington is not acting.

“Without testing, we cannot have visitation,” Steve told reporters. “What do we say to families who are at our doorsteps begging to see their loved one? To deny (residents) the basic human right of socialization because we cannot as a society come up with personal protective equipment or testing is wrong.”

Wrong indeed. And when will it change? Only when Congress acts to provide the funds providers need to conduct rapid-result testing, to protect their workers and residents, and to compensate direct care workers for putting their lives on the line each day.

Each of the members on our call had a final, personal message, which they directed to their senators, calling them by name. The messages were clear.

Don’t abandon us. Be a leader in this fight.

It’s time all of us sent similar messages to our elected leaders, don’t you think?