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The pandemic exposed staff shortages at nursing homes. A new White House push aims for a remedy

News

The pandemic exposed staff shortages at nursing homes. A new White House push aims for a remedy
News

News

The pandemic exposed staff shortages at nursing homes. A new White House push aims for a remedy

2024-04-23 06:24 Last Updated At:06:30

WASHINGTON (AP) — Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday said the first rule to set minimum staffing levels at federally funded nursing homes and require that a certain portion of the taxpayer dollars they receive go toward wages for care workers is a long-overdue “milestone” that recognizes their value to society.

Harris announced the rules in Washington before she flew to LaCrosse, Wisconsin to meet with nursing home care employees. In the battleground state, the Democratic vice president also held a campaign event focused on abortion rights.

“It is about time that we start to recognize your value and pay you accordingly and give you the structure and support that you deserve,” Harris told a small group of care workers.

The federal government is for the first time requiring nursing homes to have minimum staffing levels after the COVID-19 pandemic exposed grim realities in poorly staffed facilities. The change will mean more staff at these facilities, fewer emergency room visits for residents and peace of mind for caregivers, who will be able to spend more time with their patients, Harris said.

The vice president said that Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for lower-income people, pays $125 billion annually to home health care companies, which were not required to report on how they were spending the money. A second rule being finalized Monday will require that 80% of that money be used to pay workers, instead of administrative or overhead costs, Harris said.

“This is about dignity, and it's about dignity that we as a society owe to those in particular who care for the least of these,” she said.

President Joe Biden first announced his plan to set nursing home staffing levels in his 2022 State of the Union address. Current law only requires that nursing homes have “sufficient” staffing, leaving it up to states for interpretation.

The new rules implement a minimum number of hours that staff members spend with residents. They also require a registered nurse to be available around the clock at federally funded facilities, which are home to about 1.2 million people.

Allies of older adults have sought the regulation for decades, but the rules drew pushback from the nursing home industry.

Mark Parkinson, president of the American Health Care Association, which lobbies for care facilities, said Monday in a statement that the organization was disappointed and troubled that the federal government was moving forward with what he said was an “unfunded mandate.”

“It is unconscionable that the administration is finalizing this rule given our nation’s changing demographics and growing caregiver shortage,” Parkinson said. “Issuing a final rule that demands hundreds of thousands of additional caregivers when there’s a nationwide shortfall of nurses just creates an impossible task for providers.”

Wisconsin Republicans echoed the staffing concerns, noting shortages particularly in rural parts of the state. In Elroy, Wisconsin, for instance, an 80-bed nursing home would be required to hire six additional nurses, but “we simply don't have the bodies,” said Wisconsin state Rep. Tony Kurtz.

Noting the added costs and requirements, Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson bluntly insisted to reporters on a conference call that the rule “might sound good. It won’t work.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said the change is about setting a standard for quality of care.

“We believe, that with more and more Americans going to nursing homes, it's time to make sure that quality is the standard that everyone strives for,” Becerra said in an interview.

He said the administration listened to feedback from the nursing home industry and is allowing the rule to be phased in with longer timeframes for nursing homes in rural communities and temporary hardship exemptions in places where it's hard to find staff.

The care event marked Harris' third visit to the battleground state this year and is part of Biden's push to earn the support of union workers in his bid for reelection. Republican presidential challenger Donald Trump made inroads with blue-collar workers in his 2016 victory. Biden regularly calls himself the "most pro-union” president in history and has received endorsements from leading labor groups such as the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Lisa Gordon, a certified nursing assistant who told Harris, “I've been doing this job for 29 years,” said she was grateful that Biden and the vice president were “finally getting something done.”

“I entered this field because I care about taking care of our elderly,” Gordon said during a talk with other care providers, Chiquita Brooks-Lasure, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and April Verrett, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union.

“Being short-staffed is not taking care of them like they should be,” Gordon said. “They didn't ask to be there. Your residents are your family. They're your loved ones. We need these changes.”

The coronavirus pandemic, which claimed more than 167,000 nursing home residents in the U.S., exposed the poor staffing levels at the facilities and led many workers to leave the industry. Advocates for the elderly and disabled reported residents who were neglected, going without meals and water or kept in soiled diapers for too long. Experts said staffing levels are the most important marker for quality of care.

The new rules call for staffing equivalent to 3.48 hours per resident per day, just over half an hour of it coming from registered nurses. The government said that means a facility with 100 residents would need two or three registered nurses and 10 or 11 nurse aides as well as two additional nurse staff per shift to meet the new standards.

The average U.S. nursing home already has overall caregiver staffing of about 3.6 hours per resident per day, including RN staffing just above the half-hour mark, but the government said a majority of the country’s roughly 15,000 nursing homes would have to add staff under the new regulation.

The new thresholds are still lower than those that had long been eyed by advocates after a landmark 2001 study funded by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recommended an average of 4.1 hours of nursing care per resident daily.

Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.

FILE - Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 7, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, in Big Bend, Wis. Harris plans to return to Wisconsin next week for her third visit to the battleground state this year. President Joe Biden's campaign announced Thursday, April 18, that Harris plans to campaign in La Crosse on Monday at an event focused on abortion rights (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

FILE - Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 7, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, in Big Bend, Wis. Harris plans to return to Wisconsin next week for her third visit to the battleground state this year. President Joe Biden's campaign announced Thursday, April 18, that Harris plans to campaign in La Crosse on Monday at an event focused on abortion rights (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

KALAMATA, Greece (AP) — Nine Egyptian men went on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations.

Outside the courthouse, a small group of protesters clashed with riot police as the proceedings got underway. There were no reports of serious injuries but two people were detained.

The defendants, most in their 20s, face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges over the sinking of the “Adriana” fishing trawler on June 14 last year off the southern coast of Greece.

International human rights groups argue that their right to a fair trial is being compromised as they face judgment before an investigation is concluded into claims that the Greek coast guard may have botched the rescue attempt.

More than 500 people are believed to have gone down with the fishing trawler, which had been traveling from Libya to Italy. Following the sinking, 104 people were rescued — mostly migrants from Syria, Pakistan and Egypt — and 82 bodies were recovered.

The protesters could be heard inside the packed courtroom as presiding judge Eftichia Kontaratou read out the names of the nine defendants.

Defense lawyer Spyros Pantazis asked the court to declare itself incompetent to try the case, arguing that the sinking occurred outside Greek territorial waters. “The court be turned into an international punisher,” Pantazis told the panel of three judges. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres last year described the shipwreck as “horrific."

The sinking renewed pressure on European governments to protect the lives of migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach the continent, as the number of people traveling illegally across the Mediterranean continues to rise every year.

Lawyers from Greek human rights groups are representing the nine Egyptians, who deny the smuggling charges.

“There’s a real risk that these nine survivors could be found ‘guilty’ on the basis of incomplete and questionable evidence, given that the official investigation into the role of the coast guard has not yet been completed,” said Judith Sunderland, an associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.

Authorities say the defendants were identified by other survivors and the indictments are based on their testimonies.

The European border protection agency Frontex says illegal border detections at EU frontiers increased for three consecutive years through 2023, reaching the highest level since the 2015-2016 migration crisis — driven largely by arrivals at the sea borders.

Police guard outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Police guard outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

A protester bleeds after clashes with police outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

A protester bleeds after clashes with police outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Police clash with protesters outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Police clash with protesters outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Police clash with protesters outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Police clash with protesters outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Two of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants arrive at a courthouse for the start of their trial in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Two of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants arrive at a courthouse for the start of their trial in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Two of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants arrive at a courthouse for the start of their trial in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Two of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants arrive at a courthouse for the start of their trial in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Two of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants arrive at a courthouse for the start of their trial in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Two of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants arrive at a courthouse for the start of their trial in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

One of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants waves as he is led by police to a courthouse in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

One of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants waves as he is led by police to a courthouse in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

One of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants waves as he is led by police to a courthouse in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

One of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants waves as he is led by police to a courthouse in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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