Help or hinder? Ohio health experts discuss Biden nursing home staff vaccination requirement

NBC4 Investigates

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — On the heels of the White House announcing it may block federal funding to nursing homes with staff members who haven’t been vaccinated for COVID-19, some advocates worry the plan could backfire.

President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday plans to withhold Medicare and Medicaid funding from long-term care facilities with unvaccinated staff in an effort to encourage vaccinations and protect residents in those homes, who are among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Long-term care facilities are required to regularly self-report the percentage of residents and staff who have received a COVID-19 vaccine to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. NBC4 Investigates first dug into this issue late last month.

The percentage of staff at Ohio nursing homes with at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine has improved in some ways since NBC4’s report three weeks ago. Fewer nursing homes are under 30% staff vaccinated (9.97% versus 10.33%) and fewer are under 20% staff vaccinated (43.81% versus 45.21%).

And in Franklin County, 28.57% of reporting homes had less than half of their staff at least partially vaccinated by Aug. 1, compared to 31.48% of homes by July 11.

But the White House’s announcement could help speed up that slow progress.

Dr. Joseph Gastaldo, an infectious disease specialist at OhioHealth, said he supports the new initiative as new variants of the coronavirus bring new concerns of infections among the vaccinated.

“If you look at what’s happened really over the last couple months, it is now the accepted standard of care that health care workers have a requirement to be vaccinated,” Gastaldo said. “We are seeing a little bit more breakthrough infections with the Delta variant. And we can see people who are infected with the Delta variant spread it easier to vulnerable individuals, i.e. nursing home residents.”

A CMS press release states the agency is still working on the exact terms of the regulation, so it remains unclear whether the federal government will grant exceptions or impose testing requirements for those who are unvaccinated for religious or medical reasons.

Pete Van Runkle, executive director of the lobbying group Ohio Health Care Association, cautions that if the rule is not narrowly tailored, there could be an exodus of nursing home staff in Ohio, where there already exists a shortage in care.

“How many of them are going to say, ‘I’ll go somewhere else?’ And it won’t necessarily even be long-term care or health care. It may be Target or Walmart or Burger King or wherever,” Van Runkle said. “We all know that everyone has a staff shortage.”

He also said nursing homes depend on Medicare and Medicaid funds in order to operate.

“If you take away Medicare and Medicaid funding from any skilled nursing facility in this state, they will go out of business,” he said.

Van Runkle added that some nursing homes in Ohio have successfully increased vaccination rates among staff by offering cash incentives.

Not all advocates oppose Biden’s proposal, however. AARP Executive Vice President Nancy A. LeaMond called the announcement “a significant step” in fighting the pandemic.

“Around 30% of COVID deaths have been among residents and staff in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, even though they represent less than 1% of the population,” LeaMond said. “As the new variants are emerging, facilities cannot let preventable problems be repeated. Increasing vaccination rates in nursing homes is one of the most common sense and powerful actions we can take to protect the lives of vulnerable older adults.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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