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Nursing homes accuse Washington state of diverting millions in federal COVID-19 funds to other state coffers

Washington state says "belt-tightening" is essential as nursing homes struggle with coronavirus costs.

Nursing home administrators and advocacy groups across Washington state are accusing state officials of withholding federal dollars allocated by Congress to help them care for their residents in the time of COVID-19.

At issue is emergency funding authorized by Congress to help Medicaid-funded programs in every state. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided for a 6.2% increase in all Medicaid programs. In Washington, the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) calculated the nursing facility portion of the money: $42 million from January to June, which would support an increase of $29 per day for all Medicaid-funded residents.

Costs inside nursing homes have skyrocketed during the pandemic with new expenditures associated with protective gear, testing and increased staffing needs. In addition, most facilities cannot admit new residents or patients because of coronavirus restrictions.

But in a move that surprised those who run these facilities, the state slashed the $29 per day allotment to $5 per day beginning in July, even as Congress extended the state of emergency funding.

A spokesperson for the Office of Financial Management (OFM), which provides budget services to the governor's office, said the reduction was made to be more fiscally responsible and that there is “belt-tightening across the state budget” to keep future funding cuts at bay.

Advocates said the state is “pocketing the money” and is knowingly putting skilled nursing facilities, especially, in an impossible financial situation.

“Their excuse that this is ‘belt-tightening” is unconscionable. They are taking the position that cutting funding for those on the front lines of the gravest health crisis in a century is somehow acceptable if it is explained away as 'belt-tightening.' They are saying that we can respond to the pandemic and protect our most vulnerable on $5 a day,” said Robin Dale, president and CEO of the Tumwater-based advocacy group Washington Health Care Association.

Alyssa Odegaard, vice president of public policy for LeadingAge Washington, which represents nonprofit long term care organizations in the state, said the pandemic is costing nursing homes an average increase of $50 per person, per day.

With increased costs, an inability to admit residents and the recent cut from the state, Odegaard said some of their member organizations worry they’ll be forced to close their doors. 

“It was mind-blowing. We know this virus disproportionately impacts those living in congregate care settings - skilled nursing facilities and other long-term care (options). They need the support right now from our state and so, how you could then take the money that’s going to care for them during this emergency; it’s hard to even understand what the logic behind that was.”

A spokesperson for DSHS said the state agency is carrying out funding decisions made by the legislature and OFM. A spokesperson for OFM didn’t say where the additional federal money is going.