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State again refuses to impose staffing requirements on nursing homes

Delegate Vivian Watts has been introducing bills to assure adequate staff in nursing homes for two decades.

“When my parents were facing it, a great aunt was facing it, later on my sister," she recalls. "Twenty years have passed, and I’m now talking about my contemporaries!”

Delegate Vivian Watts has called for staffing requirements in nursing homes for 20 years.
Vivian Watts
Delegate Vivian Watts has called for staffing requirements in nursing homes for 20 years.

This year, she thought the General Assembly might finally agree.

“Thirty percent more of our COVID deaths were in nursing homes than in the other states.”

But House and Senate members knew they would have to increase Medicaid payments to nursing homes if a requirement were imposed, costing about $25 million in the first year. Watts thought Virginia could afford that.

“Dealing with a budget surplus, this is the time to look at these basic needs that have been tragically unmet,” she says.

But, she said, politicians make campaign promises to cut taxes rather than meet the needs of Virginia’s most vulnerable citizens.

“When they’re in a nursing home, it’s out of sight, out of mind, and it’s wrong!”

Some have argued that the state should increase Medicaid payments before imposing staffing requirements, but Watts says new rules would force lawmakers to do the right thing.

“If we have staffing standards we have to face up to the fact that we have got to pay more for the care of our elderly people in nursing homes.”

Unfortunately, she concludes, fragile seniors – especially those who depend on government to pay for care – are not a priority for most lawmakers.

“Public schools, K-12, is a big priority, and we’re finding that mental health has to have far more priority than it’s had, but these are all the things that keep legislators responding to the public and really dealing with this issue as it needs to be dealt with.”

Frankly, Watts thinks many people would be willing to pay higher taxes so Virginia’s disabled seniors could be guaranteed four hours of personal care a day.

“I go way back to my citizen days, and I still remember once testifying to my local government on budget issues, and ‘I said, 'I have no problem if my taxes are an extra $50 or $100 a year to meet these kinds of needs. Those are my life priorities too.’”

And she is hopeful that lawmakers will pass her bill next year when they’ve voted to consider the measure again. Working with advocacy groups like AARP, she’ll spend the next nine months preparing.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief