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Illinois nursing home owners profit while many residents suffer during pandemic

Underfunding is blamed for problems in the nursing home industry, but there are no more excuses. More than 10,400 residents have died from COVID-19.

Nursing home workers are overburdened, exhausted and stressed, write the authors. In 2019, Illinois ranked last in nursing home staffing.
Nursing home workers are overburdened, exhausted and stressed, write the authors. In 2019, Illinois ranked last in nursing home staffing.
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The Central Illinois man with intellectual disabilities who died from social isolation because his family could not visit him in person or virtually due to overly restrictive nursing home rules during the pandemic.

The elderly man in a northwest suburban Chicago nursing home who fell out of bed, left to lie on the floor for hours simply because there were not enough staff to notice he needed help.

The nursing home worker in Chicago toiling for years, yet still making barely over minimum wage, who has up to 30 residents to care for at the same time.

These are the heartbreaking stories of neglect, abuse and preventable infection deaths in nursing homes in Illinois that we are fighting to end. Time is running out this legislative session for action.

Our Illinois House Human Services and Mental Health Addiction committees have conducted a series of hearings on the quality of long-term care in Illinois, and as evidenced by these stories and many others, we have so much work to do.

Underfunding long has been blamed as the root cause of problems in the nursing home industry, but there are no more excuses. More than 10,400 residents of long-term care facilities in Illinois have died from COVID-19, with 78,000 nursing home residents confirmed positive — and those numbers are rising. Illinois and federal government have responded by sending an additional $240 million to nursing homes to address staffing numbers, and one-time pandemic response funding totaled at least $880 million for Illinois nursing homes in 2020. Those totals do not include federal PPP funds.

Yet the industry’s failures mount: failure to be transparent and accountable in how the public funds are used, failure to improve staffing numbers, failure to reduce dangerous overcrowding. We need greater regulation of the use of psychotropic drugs in these facilities. A 2018 study from senior advocacy group found that Illinois has the nation’s second worst record of giving these powerful drugs without a psychiatric diagnosis. Sadly, patients are kept sedated to be more “manageable.”

Nursing home workers are overburdened, exhausted and stressed. In 2019, Illinois ranked last in nursing home staffing. These homes rely often on placing three or four persons in each room, though the federal Medicare program began reducing room occupancy numbers more than five years ago.

The Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services found that before the pandemic, 10,000 Medicaid patients lived in nursing homes, with three or more other people in a room. It’s easy to see how the dangerous COVID-19 virus spread so quickly when vulnerable people — especially Black and Hispanic residents — were crowded together in understaffed facilities.

Yet in many of these same nursing homes with high Medicaid populations squeezed together, the owners are profiting. Forty-four percent of COVID-related deaths for nursing home residents on Medicaid at the height of the pandemic occurred in facilities that were overcrowded, and nearly 90% of Illinois nursing homes have had cases of bed sores leading to sepsis infections. Yet the nursing home industry — including for-profit providers who have faced accusations of Medicare fraud and kickbacks, labor violations or widespread patient care failures — have received hundreds of millions of dollars in “no strings attached” COVID-19 relief intended for pandemic response expenses and shortfalls.

Now is the time for reform. We have to know that nursing homes are improving staffing, providing quality care, preventing infection and allowing proper visitation under federal and state guidelines — and being held accountable for every dollar they spend.

We urge our colleagues and Gov. J.B. Pritzker to demand better care and more transparency. No more seniors should have to suffer from inaction.

State Rep. Anna Moeller, D-Elgin, is chairwoman of the Illinois House Human Services Committee. Rep. Deb Conroy, D-Villa Park, is chairwoman of the Mental Health and Addiction Committee. Rep. Michelle Mussman, D-Schaumburg, is vice-chairwoman of the Mental Health and Addiction Committee. Rep. Lakesia Collins, D-Chicago, is a member of the Human Services Committee. Rep. Denyse Wang Stoneback, D-Skokie, is a member of the Mental Health and Addiction Committee. Rep. Angelica Guerrero Cuellar, D-Chicago, is a member of the Mental Health and Addiction Committee.

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