As public policy goes, it’s pretty simple. Families with loved ones in nursing homes and other senior living settings deserve to know the whole truth about COVID-19 testing results and the actual death count in any specific facility.
And so does the public. After all, Governor Charlie Baker just announced the state will give nursing homes — which are already taxpayer-subsidized — another $130 million to bolster their response to the coronavirus. It’s only fair to expect transparency in exchange for that money.
But right now, there’s no way for the public to get that information. The state’s official coronavirus dashboard reports “confirmed cases” of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities, not COVID-19 deaths in each facility. And even with confirmed cases, there’s no precise tally, just three broad reporting categories: more than 30, 10 to 30 and fewer than 10. Nor does the dashboard report how many residents have recovered from the virus, or provide any breakdown of employee versus resident statistics.
If the Baker administration won’t publicize that data, it falls to the Legislature to step in. Simple transparency was the goal of legislation proposed by state Representative Ruth Balser of Newton. Her bill, which was passed by the House, would require assisted-living, long-term care, and elderly housing facilities to report the number of known COVID-19 cases and mortalities among residents and employees to the state Department of Public Health on a daily basis; and then require DPH to update this data every day and make it available to the public. The bill also requires the facility to report the known number of COVID-19 positive cases and deaths to each resident’s health care proxy or emergency contact. Under Balser’s bill, the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea and the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke — where at least 74 residents died of COVID-19 — would have to comply with these reporting requirements, as would publicly subsidized senior housing.
“Only with that information can we ensure that those at greatest risk get the information and resources needed to respond to this crisis,” said Balser.
Ironically, a bill that calls for more transparency instead disappeared into something of a legislative Bermuda Triangle. Balser’s bill is being held up in the Senate Ways and Means committee, supposedly over concerns about how such data could be gathered from senior housing facilities. That could easily be resolved by passing a law that requires it.
However, what should be simple has become complicated. The House passed two pieces of legislation to address data collection and reporting during the coronavirus outbreak — Balser’s and another bill calling for data collection to identify health care disparities based on race and ethnicity and other factors — and a task force to review the findings. The Senate, which took up the disparities bill, added language regarding COVID-19 reporting in long-term care facilities. Unlike Balser’s bill, the Senate bill did not specifically reference the Soldiers’ Homes in Chelsea and Holyoke until it was tweaked this week to adopt the House definition of long-term care.
Remember, the average age of the more than 5,000 Massachusetts citizens who have died so far from COVID-19 is 82. And residents of long-term care facilities account for at least 60 percent of the COVID-19 dead. The virus is devastating nursing homes everywhere, but it’s worse in Massachusetts: The percentage of overall coronavirus deaths recorded in long-term care facilities is double the national average. Given the Baker administration’s reluctance to provide more detailed data, the goal of lawmakers should be the greatest possible disclosure, undiluted by petty institutional power and ego struggles.
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