House coronavirus task force launches probe into nursing homes

The House committee overseeing the federal response to the coronavirus crisis is launching a sweeping investigation into the country’s five largest for-profit nursing home companies, demanding details about their structure, executive compensation and preparedness for the coronavirus crisis.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who chairs the coronavirus panel, sent letters to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, as well as the five companies, seeking reams of information about whether CMS properly managed the outbreak in nursing homes, ensuring that enough testing and supplies were available. The panel is probing a wide range of issues, from the scale of the outbreak in the facilities to potential shortages of protective equipment for patients and staff.

Nursing homes have been particularly ravaged by coronavirus, which affects the elderly more acutely than others. More than a quarter of the nation’s 115,000 coronavirus-related deaths have been attributed to the spread in nursing homes.

The five companies Clyburn is contacting — Genesis HealthCare, Life Care Centers of America, Ensign Group, SavaSeniorCare and Consulate Health Care — operate more than 850 facilities for 80,000 residents in 40 states. Each has seen outbreaks at multiple facilities, including more than 1,500 across 187 facilities at Genesis HealthCare, according to the committee.

A spokesperson for SavaSeniorCare declined to comment, writing in an email that this was the first the nursing chain was seeing of the letter and needed to “read and absorb it first.” Life Care Centers of America received the letter and is reviewing it, adding that it will take “some time to evaluate the extent of the information being requested,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.

The remaining companies didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Clyburn’s inquiries come amid fresh evidence that failures to control the spread of coronavirus in nursing homes have many causes: About half haven’t been inspected by the states for their preparedness to contain the spread of the virus.

House GOP Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), Clyburn’s counterpart on the coronavirus panel, emphasized state-level failures and said that states that declined to follow federal guidelines saw the worst outbreaks.

“This attempt to pin the tragedy in America’s nursing homes on President Trump is desperate, unconvincing, and completely divorced from reality,” he said.

Scalise said he’s asked Democrats to call in governors in states where these failures occurred.

Nursing homes, particularly those hit by outbreaks, have suffered equipment and staffing shortages that compounded the risks to residents and employees.

“As workers have fallen sick with the coronavirus or stayed home to self-quarantine, to care for children, or for other reasons, staffing shortages have worsened,” Clyburn wrote in the letters to the nursing home companies. “More than 2,000 nursing homes recently reported staffing shortages to CMS.”

“Family members also report that nursing homes have failed to provide timely information about outbreaks and symptoms experienced by their loved ones–sometimes only notifying them of a problem after their loved ones passed away,” he continued. “Such practices unquestionably fall short of the care Americans expect for the most vulnerable amongst us.”

Though Clyburn’s letters will raise questions about whether the companies acted responsibly, he issued his most pointed questions for CMS Administrator Seema Verma, criticizing her agency’s response to the outbreak.

“Despite CMS’ broad legal authority, the agency has largely deferred to states, local governments, and for-profit nursing homes to respond to the coronavirus crisis,” Clyburn said in a statement revealing the probe.

The panel is asking CMS for details about how it enforced health and safety regulations at nursing homes as the outbreak worsened. Democrats have faulted the Trump administration’s response to coronavirus for allowing the virus to spread, while hospitals and other health care facilities languished without enough protective gear to stanch the overwhelming early caseload.

CMS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Verma recently defended the agency’s response to the coronavirus on a call with reporters, saying the federal government first released guidelines in February doubling down on infection control, unveiled more than 13 guidance documents on best practices for nursing homes and has continued to talk to nursing homes weekly.

“This idea of trying to finger point and blame the federal government is absolutely ridiculous, and you can see our strong history of continued action from the very beginning of this,” Verma said earlier this month.

Among the concerns Clyburn has raised is the lack of transparency in how the Trump administration distributed federal funds approved through the $2 trillion CARES Act, the law that sent massive infusions of cash to shore up businesses, industries and health care facilities rocked by the pandemic.

In his letter to CMS, Clyburn asks for a June 30 briefing to address his concerns. He’s also seeking details on the number of coronavirus tests performed at nursing homes for both staff and residents, any CMS forecasts on the impact of the outbreak in nursing homes through 2021, details on CMS’s plans to address stock nursing homes with protective equipment and ensure staffing levels are adequate, and documentation of any coronavirus-related complaints made about nursing homes or their employees.

Clyburn’s committee, a 12-member panel of lawmakers selected by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), has been examining aspects of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans have derided the committee as a political exercise meant to dog Trump in the run-up to the 2020 election, but Clyburn has dismissed the complaints and promised to focus on ways to address real-time issues that emerge as the government responds.

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