​The American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) said the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light systemic challenges impacting the long term care profession, but at the same time offers an opportunity for making major adjustments to the way in which care is provided to the nation’s elderly and those with disabilities.

“With new COVID cases reaching record lows thanks in large part to the vaccines, the industry is optimistic that we have turned a corner,” AHCA/NCAL said. “As we look toward the future, long term care leaders and lawmakers must work together to apply the lessons learned and ensure that all seniors have access to quality long term care options.”

First off is the fact that America’s elderly population is growing, the association said.

“Substantive reform is needed within the industry as we prepare for the increased demand in long term care services.”

AHCA/NCAL, in partnership with LeadingAge, said it has proposed the Care For Our Seniors Act—a reform package that will support better pandemic management and strengthen overall care in nursing homes. The package consists of four policy areas:

  • Clinical improvements to enhance quality of care;
  • Workforce improvements to strengthen and support frontline caregivers;
  • Oversight reforms to make systems more resident-driven; and
  • Structural modernizations focused on resident dignity and safety.

The nursing home industry has called attention to these long-standing issues for years—issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, AHCA/NCAL said.

For example, workforce shortages plagued nursing homes long before COVID-19, but the pandemic worsened these shortages and left available workers stretched thin. The unprecedented challenges and traumatic experience of the past year have taken a heavy toll on caregivers, leading to considerable burnout among staff.

AHCA/NCAL said industry leaders are concerned that the profession will see a mass exodus of workers. In fact, The Washington Post reports: “According to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, roughly 3 in 10 health care workers have weighed leaving their profession. More than half are burned out. And about 6 in 10 say stress from the pandemic has harmed their mental health.”

Meanwhile, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association found that 31 percent of COVID deaths in nursing homes in Ontario, Canada, would have been prevented if all residents had had single-occupancy rooms. The modernization proposal in the Care for Our Seniors Act calls for a shift to more private rooms, which will allow for greater privacy and dignity for residents, as well as promote enhanced infection prevention and control, AHCA/NCAL said.

Implementing these reforms requires a commitment from federal and state lawmakers to properly fund nursing homes—particularly ensuring that Medicaid reimbursement rates cover the actual cost of care. With the majority of nursing homes already operating on razor-thin margins, the cost of making improvements will not be possible without financial assistance, the association said.

“Long term care was forgotten at the beginning of the pandemic, but they cannot be forgotten now. Lawmakers have an opportunity to put America’s seniors and frontline caregivers first,” AHCA/NCAL said.