Update for Week Ending May 22, 2020

Update for Week Ending May 22, 2020

Despite the coronavirus emergency, TSCL is continuing its fight for you to protect your Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits.  We have had to make some adjustments in the way we carry on our work, but we have not, and will not stop our work on your behalf.

In our reporting to you each week about what is happening in Washington, we are aware that there is not a lot of good news to bring you.  While we don't want you to despair about the situation, we think it's important you have the facts, as best we can know them, even if the facts are not the kind of news all of us would like to hear.

Much of what is happening in Congress and the Administration right now is gathering as much data as possible in order to make decisions about how to move forward, both about the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the many other issues that confront our elected leaders.  This, of course, is what Congress has always done and is why it holds hearings.  It is through that process that they learn what problems exist and what the possible remedies might be.

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Hearing on Seniors and COVID-19 held in the Senate

This week the Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing on the situation in nursing homes during this pandemic and what might be done about it.  The hearing was held in one of only three Senate hearing rooms configured for remote participation by both Senators and witnesses, as well as the public.

The hearing was chaired by Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), who was there in person, along with a few other members of the committee.  Several other Senators participated by teleconference, as did all three of the witnesses.  TSCL was able to view the hearing this way, as well.

Among several things we learned is that while .05 percent of the US population are in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, over one-third of all deaths from the coronavirus have occurred in those same facilities.  In fact, in some states it is over half of the deaths have been in those facilities.

One of the witnesses from the University of Chicago stated they had done research regarding nursing homes and long-term care facilities and had come up with these facts:

  • 1) there is a strong and consistent relationship between race and deaths in those facilities;
  • 2) the ratings that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) gives to nursing homes made no difference in the mortality rate at those homes;
  • 3) there is no difference in mortality rate between for-profit and non-profit nursing homes.

Another witness told of how difficult it has been for nursing homes and long-term care facilities to get the proper masks and other personal protective equipment they need to keep their employees safe and give their residents the proper care.  He said when they did find those things available they had to pay 7 to 10 times more than they used to, and they had to use suppliers they weren't sure were trustworthy and whether the material they were selling was up to standards.

This hearing came on top of news this week that according to an industry survey, most of the country’s nursing homes can’t test all their residents and staff for Covid-19, potentially thwarting efforts to stop outbreaks among the most vulnerable to the outbreak. State and federal agencies are asking nursing and assisted living homes to perform coronavirus tests regularly to help prevent outbreaks among the elderly and could face fines if they fail to do so. Eight states have rolled out universal testing plans for elder care facilities and are reporting mixed results.

Among other recommendations made at the hearing was that home healthcare will be more important than ever going forward and that there will be a need for increased funding to provide for enough home health-care workers.

Providing for health-care workers and the residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities is an important concern for TSCL and we will monitor and weigh in on any new legislation that may make its way through Congress regarding these issues.

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Medicare and Medicaid facing serious problems because of the Coronavirus

On top of the news about the challenges faced by nursing homes is more information this week about the funding challenges faced by both Medicare and Medicaid.  According to one report, health-care spending for vulnerable populations will likely be cut in the not-too-distant future as Covid-19 related job losses chip away at future tax revenue to fund programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

That uncertainty, paired with existing job cuts, means the government will not take in as much money as it previously has through payroll or income taxes. Consequently, at a time when access to health care for all Americans is needed to fight the new coronavirus, health initiatives for low-income adults and children are at serious risk to being cut in the near-term.

Medicaid, which is funded by the federal government and states, is typically the first program elected officials look at for cutting because it does not have a large political constituency.

Lower payroll taxes also squeeze Medicare funding, and that could create pressure to cut payments to hospitals and programs that primarily serve low-income people. Facilities with that clientele, called Disproportionate Share Hospitals, will likely see lower payment rates from Medicare, as will community health centers

Concerns about appropriately funding Medicare have been building for years, but the uncertainty of the pandemic raises new alarms. Every year a board of trustees releases a report, which we told you about recently, giving their estimate of the financial condition of both Medicare and Medicaid.  The reports anticipate that a funding source for one bucket of Medicare benefits will dry up by 2026, which means some enrollees could lose their coverage. That bucket pays for hospital care, home health care, and fighting Medicare fraud. It is primarily funded through payroll taxes.

Obviously, this is horrific news at a time when even more funding is needed to protect the most vulnerable elderly from diseases like COVID-19.

TSCL will continue to fight for adequate funding for Medicare and Medicaid and you can be sure we will be in the front lines fighting to stop any attempt to cut funding for those programs by politicians who want to balance the budget on the backs of vulnerable seniors.

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Pandemic results in Lower Medicare Spending – For Now

The one hopeful note in all of this is that for the past few months Medicare and Medicaid spending has been lower because the pandemic has caused seniors to put off medical care they would otherwise have gotten.  More than 76 million American adults did not get needed medical care for conditions unrelated to Covid-19 in the past month, new U.S. Census data show.

However, this is a concern in and of itself because some seniors should not be putting off the care, they need to maintain their health.

The estimate is the clearest picture yet of how pandemic-related shutdowns led to a staggering drop in people seeking medical care, causing a huge drop in revenue for doctors and hospitals. Almost 94 million adults, more than one-third of the adult population, delayed care during the pandemic, the Census estimates.

The survey also found high rates of mental-health problems. About 116 million Americans reported feelings of being down, depressed, or hopeless on at least some days of the week prior to the survey. About 147 million, or more than 40% of the population, reported symptoms of anxiety. Health experts and medical providers are increasingly concerned about the long-term consequences of the shutdowns.

Lastly, we note that many dental offices have reopened and are asking patients to make appointments for their dental care.  However, the Center for Disease Control does not agree with that policy in areas where there has not been a drop in the rate of coronavirus infections.  The CDC still recommends that in those areas only persons with a need for emergency dental care see their dentist.

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Vaccines, Testing and the Coronavirus

With more than 100 vaccines under development and at least as many drugs being examined, there has been a certain amount of optimism in the news this week as one of the drugs was reported to initially look like it might work as a vaccine against the coronavirus.

However, medical experts have subsequently warned us that almost all of these efforts in discovering a vaccine are in the early stages, meaning that the gold standard of data ― clinical trials with "blinded" placebo and therapy groups ― is still hard to come by. With loosened rules and a desire to get solutions to market quickly, it is important to cast a skeptical eye on too-good-to-be-true data.

Vaccines give broad parts of the population some level of immunity and are considered crucial to ending the pandemic. They also take longer to develop, in part because they must be proven to be extremely safe since they are given to healthy people. While some researchers say a vaccine could be ready by the end of the year and the Trump administration has been discussing "Operation Warp Speed" to have one ready sooner, others say it could take a year or more.

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Beware of Coronavirus Antibody Tests being offered for sale

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said this week that 27 coronavirus antibody tests will no longer be distributed in the U.S., as part of a previously announced crackdown by the regulator on the tests. Antibody tests look for markers in the blood that indicate exposure to the coronavirus, but, in contrast with diagnostic tests, cannot determine whether a patient has an active Covid-19 infection.

The FDA’s stricter stance on antibody tests follows an initially permissive policy that let hundreds of antibody tests be sold without the regulator’s oversight and prompted criticism about the tests having accuracy issues. The 27 tests either did not seek authorization from the FDA or had “significant problems” identified with them, according to the FDA.

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For progress updates or for more information about these and other bills that would strengthen Social Security and Medicare programs, visit the Bill Tracking section of our website or follow TSCL on Twitter and Facebook.