Kemp allocates $113 million in COVID funds to help nursing, care homes

Nursing homes, like this one in Atlanta where National Guard troops have joined in fighting the coronavirus, are still required under Gov. Brian Kemp’s new executive order to take aggressive steps to curb the spread of the virus. In the same order, the governor lifted the shelter-in-place for most of the state’s 10.6 million residents. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

For months, the nursing home industry in Georgia has pleaded with Gov. Brian Kemp for more money to combat the coronavirus as it has ravaged the state’s long-term care facilities, where more than 2,500 residents have died.

On Friday, Kemp tacitly acknowledged that he heard those calls for help when he committed $113 million in federal CARES Act funds to help those facilities pay for COVID staff testing and additional staffing costs.

“The funding will prioritize the health, safety and quality of life of our state’s most vulnerable citizens,” Kemp said in a statement.

The announcement comes as nursing homes must meet new federal rules that took effect last month requiring frequent testing of staff. Homes that operate in counties where infection rates are high must test all staff at least once a week, and in counties where rates are really high they must test staff twice a week. Most Georgia counties still fall into one of these two categories, and the new requirements mean that nursing homes are having to conduct up to 50,000 staff tests each week.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

Those requirements are the latest stress on an industry that has been in crisis since the virus took hold in March. Facility residents have endured months of lockdowns without visitors. Homes have had to pay overtime and hazard pay to combat staffing shortages. Costs for protective equipment and testing have increased, while revenues have been hit because occupancy rates have dropped due to the virus.

While infection rates dropped in September, the approaching flu season and colder months have officials concerned.

“If providers had access to these funds earlier, it would have greatly helped with our operational decisions and ultimately, it would have eased a lot of angst and stress that our staff have been under for months,” said Deke Cateau, CEO of A.G. Rhodes, which operates nursing homes in Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties.

As of the end of June, the state still had about $2.4 billion worth of CARES Act federal funding to pay for dealing with the pandemic, although much of that has been since spent.

In a release announcing the funding, Kemp said, “My top priority from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to ensure the health and safety of our most vulnerable citizens.

ExploreDealing with the pandemic in Georgia cost taxpayers more than $1 billion early on

“Early on, Georgia was among the first states in the nation to deploy National Guard personnel to conduct infection control missions in long term care facilities, with over 1,000 visits completed. The state also supplied tens of thousands of testing materials, sent additional staffing to facilities in need, provided infection control equipment, and shipped critical PPE items across the state.”

But House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said that for several months he’s been urging the state to spend more CARES Act money on nursing and long-term care facilities.

“It’s not doing the elderly and aged population any good sitting in a state account,” Ralston said. “I am happy it (the money) is finally getting out. It is really critical we get that out to this industry as soon as possible.”

ExploreNew testing requirement adds to stress of nursing homes

Kemp said $78 million of the $113 million would be made available to meet testing requirements at the nursing homes. An extra $35 million would help cover additional staffing at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities through the end of the year. The governor said that would “ensure facilities have the personnel necessary to safely provide care to their residents.”

Since April, the state has spent $36 million to augment staff at long-term care facilities where outbreaks created shortages.

While nursing operators credit the Kemp administration’s help acquiring protective equipment and the deployment of the National Guard, other states across the Southeast had moved more quickly to increase state funding for nursing homes, said Tony Marshall, president and CEO of the Georgia Health Care Association, which represents most nursing homes in the state. Marshall also credited Ralston for pushing hard in support of the increased funding.

Neil Pruitt, chairman and CEO of PruittHealth, one of the largest nursing home operators in the Southeast, said his company has racked up more than $19 million in pandemic-related expenses at its facilities in Georgia. He said he appreciates the governor’s announcement and eagerly awaits the details.

Our Georgia "centers have received significantly less financial support than we have received in the other states where we operate,” Pruitt said in a statement. “We are hopeful Governor Kemp’s announcement will bridge this gap.”

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