May 05, 2020


WASHINGTON – Yesterday, House Democratic Caucus Task Force on Aging and Families (TFAF) Co-Chairs Reps. Jan Schakowsky (IL), Doris Matsui (CA) and Conor Lamb (PA) along with TFAF Vice Chairs Debbie Dingell (MI), Ayanna Pressley (MA) and Ted Deutch (FL) joined Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries to discuss the crisis facing Older Americans and their families amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Chairman Jeffries and the TFAF leadership emphasized that House Democrats will continue to fight for protections for Older Americans in keeping with the principles outlined by the Task Force last week.

CHAIRMAN JEFFRIES: […] The House Democratic Caucus has continued to pursue a bottom-up approach to standing up for everyday Americans throughout the country as we confront this extraordinary pandemic: both a public health crisis as well as an economic crisis. We understand that this is a crisis and a virus that impacts everyone. The COVID-19 pandemic does not discriminate on the basis of race or region or religion, but there are also certain Americans who have been more adversely impacted than others. In that context, we know that Americans who are living in nursing homes, that elderly Americans, that those with pre-existing conditions have been adversely impacted in a disproportionate way by the COVID-19 pandemic. And we want to make sure that we continue to provide the extraordinary level of intervention necessary to look out for these very vulnerable Americans.


REP. SCHAKOWSKY: […] There are several issues, I believe, that we should address to better protect older Americans and their families from COVID-19, but I'm going to just focus on two of them.

As Co-Chair of our Task Force on Aging and Family, I am calling on the Trump administration to, one, ensure all treatments and vaccinations that are developed to address COVID-19 are affordable and accessible, especially for older Americans.

And second, to step up protection of the 2.3 million Americans who are currently living in nursing homes and other congregate living settings from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has put them at greater risk of infection and illness and death. I know that here in Illinois, more than one in four of the people that have died had been in nursing homes.

To ensure affordable drug prices for older Americans and their families, I believe our next relief package must include, at a minimum, three protections.

One, no exclusivity. That is giving exclusive patents to drug companies who are in a position to charge what they want. We can't leave these decisions up to a single profit-motivated private company.

Number two, to stop profiteering. We want to make sure that we enforce reasonable pricing.

And third, fuller transparency. Manufacturers must publicly report the total expenditure, including actual research and development costs, and make sure that they tell us about the costs of the trial phases and take into account the millions of dollars that taxpayers have already spent to develop drugs.

To address the COVID-19 crisis in long term care, on April 15th, I led 77 of my colleagues, including all of those on the Task Force that you're going to hear from today, in sending a letter to HHS Secretary Azar and CMS Administrator Verma, asking them to immediately begin tracking and publicizing the Coronavirus data from these facilities in order for us to understand what's really going on. Four days later, CMS announced that they would require nursing homes to report to patients and families and to the CDC when there are COVID-19 cases and deaths in the facility. But we haven't seen the guidelines yet. They are proposed but haven't been published. And we don't know about implementation since the announcement on April 19th.

CMS also did not address testing, testing, testing. Facilities can't report accurately without sufficient information about the test results that can help determine what's going on. For not only the patients, but for the staff in those facilities. And that's why, earlier today, I led 86 of my colleagues, including Chairman Jeffries and all of the Task Force Co-chairs and Vice Chairs in sending another letter to HHS and CMS, this time requesting that they prioritize testing in long term care facilities as they allocate and oversee the twenty five billion dollars appropriated by Congress as part of the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act that we just passed. And I will also be introducing legislation to comprehensively address the prevention issues and the quality of care for workers and their safety.


REP. MATSUI: I'd just like to say that the first thing in our Older Americans Bill of Rights is a right to high quality and affordable health care. This has always been a top priority for the Task Force. And in the context of this crisis, we need to make sure that older Americans are not more susceptible to adverse health outcomes as a result of missing preventive care or therapies due to social distancing. To preserve the continuity of care, it is critical that we leverage telehealth. We've made huge changes in the last two months that have dramatically expanded telehealth under Medicare. Medicare beneficiaries can now receive telehealth services wherever they are, including their homes. Older Americans can use their personal phones and tablets to connect with their doctors using everyday communications technologies such as FaceTime.


After this public health emergency, we need to keep moving forward on telehealth, letting patients in all areas continue to use video for a variety of health care services. And may I say this. This is an opportunity to really push out telehealth. We understand how important it is for not only seniors to maintain their connections with their health providers, but also understand that with providers themselves, some of whom cannot see their patients, this is a wonderful way for them to stay in contact with their patients also. This is something that all of us are taking a part in. It is a multifaceted strategy that considers both patient’s needs and providers.


REP. LAMB: Previously, when we had press conferences and meetings of this Task Force, I talked a lot about the way people would tell me around my district that they were just squeezed financially in old age, and that every time the Social Security benefit, you know, the cost of living went up, the money would just go right back out the door again to a Medicare premium increase. And I'm a big advocate for increasing Social Security or passing Social Security 2100 to increase the benefit in passing drug  price reform to really address both sides of the ledger. But I think in this crisis, there are more pressing and immediate issues that we have to get to right away and my colleagues have raised several of them.

I just really want to spotlight the issue of inspecting these long-term care facilities. There's one in the middle of my district in Beaver County, Brighton Rehab and Wellness Center, which has already had over 60 deaths, 60 in a region where we have not had as many as places like New York and others. And we've had 60 now, 61, I think, in a single facility. People who were part of the greatest generation did not deserve to suffer this way, apart from their families at the end of their lives. And I think in the past practice, under administrations of both parties, CMS would schedule these surveys and inspections every nine to 15 months. So one year on average. And I think that's something that has to change right away.

It's clear from looking around the country that there are infectious disease protocols that are not being followed adequately enough at a lot of these facilities and we can't afford mistakes. The Coronavirus will not allow us to have any mistakes. And so I think this Task Force can do a lot of good by working to make sure that CMS and its related state agencies can do much more frequent and rigorous surprise inspections. And I think that's something where we take a close look at going forward.


REP. DEUTCH: I want to recognize the pain felt by families across the country who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. In Florida, over 36,000 people have tested positive and 1400 have died, but the impacts of the pandemic are not felt equally. That's why one of our core principles is protecting Americans living in long-term care facilities.

Just like in Illinois, as Congresswoman Schakowsky referenced, here in Florida, eight percent of the cases in Florida are in long-term care facilities, but they account for about 35 percent of all the deaths in the state. That's important information. We need to know the risks. We need data. We need transparency. Not only to inform response efforts, but also to assist families who are now cut off from their loved ones. And it took a lot of prodding, led by Chairwoman Schakowsky, to get formal data collection underway at long-term care facilities. This seems like a pretty basic function for CDC. How many cases, how many deaths? Why did we have to fight for that?

And unfortunately, we've had to have the same fight with Florida's governor. It took a lot of pressure before Governor DeSantis finally started reporting case data among staff and residents in long-term care facilities. And now that we know more, we need to provide necessary resources and hold the Trump administration accountable for the deployment of these resources. Every long-term care facility needs tests, needs PPE, adequate staffing and close monitoring by public health officials to prevent outbreaks. So when the administration touts its Project Air Bridge and the hundred plus cargo planes bringing life-saving PPE from Asia, we need full transparency into what's on those planes and where it's going to make sure that our long-term care facilities are getting everything they need to protect those frontline workers and our seniors.

People in these long-term care facilities also need support to combat social isolation. We need to prevent abuse and neglect and protect beneficiary rights as these facilities remain closed to families. We need to protect those rights as well.


REP. DINGELL: I'm going to tell you, one of the aspects that nobody is talking about, which is many of these seniors have already decided that we've made a decision that their lives don't matter, that we've already written them off and that we've decided they should die. […] That can never, ever be true.

We need testing, testing, testing. We all keep talking about that. I had a town hall last week where a woman who lives in a senior living facility down river in my district said how scared she was and talked about her fear in real terms. She lives in a building that has apartments, but they're close together and several of her neighbors have died and passed away. She's afraid to go out in the hall. She's afraid to get in a car. She's afraid to go through drive through testing site. And she's scared that nobody cares about her and that they aren't testing her for neighbors or the staff at that center.


Too many of these facilities have not had the PPE equipment. I've worked with our state, had surprise inspections done at one of my downriver homes. They alleged that they were abiding, but I got calls from people there last week that the staff was using garbage bags for gowns because there wasn't the equipment there. Strong infection control has been discussed and PPE is just as important in nursing homes and long-term care facilities as it is in the ICU emergency room. This crisis has put a magnifying glass on the poor conditions in many facilities.


I led the Task Force efforts to introduce the Coronavirus Relief for Seniors and People with Disabilities Act. This bill will address critical health and economic needs for nursing homes, community-based services, home health care workers, seniors and people with disabilities who rely on services. Specifically, the bill will increase funding for nursing home surveys to promote infection control, covers the cost of treatment for low-income seniors and promotes home and community-based services and protects home health care workers.


REP. PRESSLEY: […]  Reports of inadequate supplies such as test kits and PPE continue to foster alarming fatality rates for residents in our long-term care facilities. In Massachusetts, nursing homes account for 60 percent of COVID-19 deaths, the second highest rate in the country. Two days ago, I was on the phone with my town manager and city councilors in Randolph. That's a town in my district that's about 30,000 members, residents strong. And they had 29 fatalities in their town, and 18 of them were in a long-term care facility.


Experts are warning that long-term facilities will soon be responsible for the majority of COVID-related fatalities in a number of other states as well. And it's becoming all too clear that these facilities really are incubators. They're incubators for the virus. And so we must do better. Our seniors deserve the dignity that comes with a place to call home. The family members that care for them deserve peace of mind.


So the Task Force is focused on ensuring the safety and well-being of our aging population in order to protect our seniors and their families. So not only should we be prioritizing seniors in long-term facilities, we also need to find ways to support home, health care workers and family members who serve seniors who are aging in community. In my district, we're hearing regularly from seniors and personal care assistants, calling my office looking for assistance as many are self-employed or employed through an agency that does not provide PPE for their workers.

And just one more side on that, we know that the infection rates have fallen higher in African American and Latinx communities and on those women of color, which dominate these essential workforces and in particular as home care aides. So I do just want to reiterate that they continue to be exposed and to not have the protections that they need, contributing to the disproportionate infection rates falling on Black and Latinx communities.

So getting the necessary equipment to these workers is literally a matter of life and death. Our frontline health care workers need this PPE to protect the lives of older Americans and to provide them the care they need to live. If they are really essential workers, then let's treat them like that and not as if they are disposable.

The updated principles released by the Task Force will guide our work to protect our seniors from this pandemic and hold this administration accountable during the response to this pandemic. […]


To listen to the full audio recording of the press call, click here.