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Assembly Panel Advances Bills To Improve Long-Term Care Centers

Four bills aimed at strengthening New Jersey’s long-term care facilities against future viral outbreaks have advanced in the state Assembly.

On Aug. 21, the Assembly Aging and Senior Services Committee signed off on the measures, which include raises for certified nurse aides, funding for infection control procedures at facilities and the creation of a centralized command center to oversee long-term care centers during health emergencies, and referred them to the Assembly Speaker for further consideration.

A-4479 would grant a one-time, lump sum payment to certain staff members who worked during the pandemic at long-term care centers.

Supplemental Pay For Workers

Under the proposed bill, the state Treasurer would create a supplemental payment program open to employees who worked at least 10 weeks and at least 25 hours providing direct care to facility residents and earn an hourly wage of less than $25 an hour.

Payments would be subject to the availability of federal funds made available to New Jersey for COVID-19 response efforts, including resources through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

According to the bill, the treasurer would determine the amount of each payment based on funding and anticipated number of applicants. Additionally, the treasurer would be authorized to expand the program to additional groups of healthcare workers, if money is available.

Rewarding Frontline Workers

The bill was sponsored by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) , Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-6) and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-27). It now heads to the Assembly Speaker for further consideration.

“Long-term care professionals have been on the front lines since day one of the pandemic,” said Vainieri Huttle, chair of the Assembly Aging and Senior Services Committee, said in a statement. “They’ve put their own health at risk to care for our elderly and disabled loved ones during these uncertain times. We need to show our appreciation and gratitude for their work.”

“Many long-term care workers must take shifts at multiple facilities to be able to support their families,” said Jasey. “These are the people who take care of our aging parents, siblings, veterans, friends and other loved ones, but they barely earn a livable wage. Providing hazard pay is one way we can give staff some relief.”

Emergency Operations Center

A-4476 calls for the creation of an emergency operations center within the state Department of Health to serve as the centralized command point during infectious disease outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics that affect long-term care centers.

The bill, which was sponsored by Vainieri Huttle and Greenwald, would provide “guidance and best practices for emergency response” to outbreaks, including on admission, staffing, visitation, testing, reporting, quarantine and isolation.

Currently, New Jersey’s emergency management central command structure falls under the state police, but it generally focuses more on incident or hazard response, and natural disasters.

Greenwald pointed out that New Jersey “certainly” is not “the only state dealing with outbreaks” in long-term care facilities and that “no one could have predicted the toll COVID-19 would take.” But, “going forward, a centralized command center devoted to long-term care “will help us make sure these facilities have the resources they need to prepare for and respond to emergencies,” he said.

The operations center, Vainieri Huttle said, is “a critical step in reforming our long-term care infrastructure and emergency response.”

Boosting Wages

As a way to help nursing homes give raises to frontline certified nurse aids and provide funding for infection control efforts, A-4547 proposes to increase the Medicaid reimbursement rate for Class I, Class II and Class III nursing facilities by 10% for the next fiscal year.

Altogether, the new funding would amount to $130 million, which includes $62 million in state funding and $68 million federal dollars. According to the proposal, $78 million would be used to boost wages, which, on average, would support a 20% hourly wage increase. The remaining $52 million would go towards helping facilities with infection control measures, like acquiring personal protective equipment, cleaning and staffing needs.

Facilities that don’t meet certain requirements set by the state Department of Health could risk having their funding forfeited, according to the bill.

Vainieri Huttle, who co-sponsored the measure with Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-14), said, “Certified nurse aides in long-term care centers are on the COVID-19 front lines day in and day out. They dedicate their lives to caring for our most vulnerable, and now they put their health at risk every day they’re on the job. If there’s ever a time to enhance wages for our severely underpaid and overworked nurse aides, it’s now.”

‘Isolation Prevention Project’

To address widespread isolation and loneliness in long-term care facilities, particularly amid the outbreak, A-4007 proposes the creation of an “Isolation Prevention Project.”

The bill, which was sponsored by Vainieri Huttle, along with Assemblywomen Angela McKnight (D-31) and Carol Murphy (D-7), would require long-term care centers to adopt and implement a written plan to prevent residents from becoming isolated.

The plans would be required to allow residents to have in-person contact with other residents as well as family, friends and other support systems during public emergencies, consistent with the circumstances of the emergency and the facility’s response plan.

Electronic Communication

If residents must be physically isolated due to the circumstances of the emergency or the facility’s response plan, they would be allowed to communicate with others electronically, including via videoconferencing and social media.

“Even before COVID-19, many residents in long-term care felt socially isolated and lonely,” said McKnight. “The pandemic has exacerbated this problem. Most of us at one point or another have leaned on family and friends for support in these uncertain times. We must make sure those in long-term care – many of them elderly or disabled – are able to stay in touch with their support systems.”

Purchase Grants

According to the proposal, the state department of health would launch a grant program to help facilities purchase electronic devices and technological equipment to help residents communicate during public emergencies.

Isolation prevention plans would also be assessed by the state during facility inspections and those not up to standard would be cited, the bill says.

Valerie Vainieri Huttle said, “Whether it be a natural disaster or a public health crisis, we must ensure that residents in these facilities can stay connected to their families and loved ones remotely when in-person visits are not feasible.”

Manatt Recommendations

Several of the measures are recommendations made in a state-commissioned report that looked at the overall response to the pandemic in long-term care facilities and veteran’s homes in New Jersey.

In Manatt Health’s review, the half-million dollar report found nursing homes were unprepared to deal with the pandemic and presented a series of recommendations on how to improve oversight, staffing shortages and communications.

Of the 14,000 people who have died from COVID-19-related complications within the Garden State, more than 7,000 of those deaths occurred in a long-term care facility. Since the onset of the pandemic, there have been 13,144 confirmed cases among staffers and 24,696 residents, according to the most recent state figures.

New Jersey has already implemented several recommendations made by Manatt Health, including the distribution of 30 million pieces of personal protective equipment, testing of 310,000 residents and 495,000 staffers and completion of 450 infection control surveys.

State officials also recently announced a series of mandatory benchmarks that facilities must meet in order to reopen for visitors and resume normal activities.

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