After Feds’ Nursing Home Testing Program Falls Short, Harder Asks for Answers

August 13, 2020
Press Release
Federal Government Promised Rapid Testing Machines, Kits to 2,400 Nursing Homes in “Hot Spots” by Mid-August

Central Valley Counties, Nursing Homes Have Not Received Machines or Kits

WASHINGTON – In response to a report from the Associated Press indicating that testing machines and kits promised by the Trump Administration will fall short of the need, Representative Josh Harder (CA-10) sent a letter to the Director of Health and Human Services (HHS) demanding answers. Last month, President Trump announced an initiative to provide rapid testing machines to every nursing home in the country, but the effort has been slow-moving and the agency now promises only to provide funding for an initial round of testing for nursing home residents and two rounds of testing for staff. Estimates indicate that testing for staff alone could cost up to $38,000 per week. Nursing homes are hotspots for Coronavirus fatalities and currently account for over 40 percent of deaths nationwide. These shortfalls underscore the need to pass Rep. Harder’s legislation, the Nursing Home Pandemic Safety Act, which would guarantee universal testing at nursing homes.

“The federal government has again dropped the ball on nursing homes and left seniors hanging – we were promised testing machines and kits but we’re still waiting,” said Rep. Harder. “We’re six months into this pandemic. There’s no excuse for how slowly the administration has moved to protect seniors. This is exactly why we should pass my bill to guarantee universal testing at nursing homes.”

Last week, the White House warned that the Central Valley is one of the worst Coronavirus hot spots in the country. However, Stanislaus and San Joaquin County emergency services offices have not heard of any federal plans to supply rapid testing equipment or test kits. Rep. Harder’s office also inquired with specific nursing homes which have seen deadly outbreaks. None of the homes contacted by Rep. Harder’s office were aware of federal plans to provide the equipment by Mid-August.

Representative Harder recently introduced the Nursing Home Pandemic Safety Act, which would guarantee universal testing for all nursing home residents and staff. The bill would establish a legal requirement that the Trump Administration provide testing to all nursing home residents and staff. Rep. Harder is a leader in efforts to protect nursing home residents and staff during the Coronavirus Pandemic. In early May, after CMS announced it would form a task force which would not meet until June, Harder demanded faster action and a better response from the agency. He also has pushed CMS to properly regulate nursing homes after a report revealed that 82 percent of nursing homes lacked proper infection protocol – even before the start of the pandemic.

The text of the letter is below and an original version is available here.

Dear Secretary Azar,

Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced its efforts to procure rapid, point-of-care diagnostic testing equipment and distribute them to every single one of the 15,400 skilled nursing facilities in the country. Yet there remain several issues that must be addressed for the plan to be effective. I write to seek clarification and urge improvements to your department’s efforts to establish regular rapid testing at nursing homes.

While your rapid testing aims are a step in the right direction, the cost burden that your plan shifts onto already-strained nursing homes is severe. Initially, HHS aimed to provide a six-week supply of tests to nursing homes along with their testing equipment, but a later report indicated that facilities would only be receiving enough kits to test residents once and staff twice. LeadingAge, a national senior care organization, estimates that the cost of weekly testing could total up to $38,000 per week per facility – a significant drain on nursing homes’ budgets at a time when they are already strained. We all agree more testing is needed, however, we must ensure our nursing homes have the monetary support to sustain the ongoing testing.

I also seek clarification regarding the time frame your department has given for the delivery of these devices. Admiral Brett Giroir, HHS’s designated testing czar, asserted that 2,400 testing machines – enough for less than a sixth of American nursing homes – would be distributed by “mid-August,” but the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) indicated that it could take until November to get every nursing home a testing machine as promised. Even once the rapid test machines are all distributed, a shortage of the test kits needed to operate them is expected. If facilities are not able to purchase test kits, their testing machines would be rendered useless until more become available.

Delays in testing for nursing homes can be deadly – the worst outbreaks in Stanislaus County have been at nursing homes. To help keep seniors and caregivers in the Central Valley safe, I seek your answers on the following questions:

  1. Does HHS have a plan to ensure that skilled nursing facilities are able to procure test kits without additional financial strain? If so, what is this plan?
  2. Your department promised to deliver the 2,400 most-needed testing machines and their accompanying starter tests by mid-August. The middle of August is this Saturday. Are you still on track to deliver these tests by then? If not, when will those machines be delivered?
  3. What are your contingencies for a situation in which machines are rendered useless by a lack of available kits?
  4. Looking into the future, what steps will HHS take to prevent future COVID-19 outbreaks in skilled nursing facilities and quickly and effectively respond to outbreaks when they happen?

Thank you for your time and effort, and I look forward to your response.