Senate chair optimistic about long-term care bill

The Massachusetts State House in Boston

The Massachusetts State House in Boston

By ALISON KUZNITZ

State House News Service

Published: 07-08-2024 3:19 PM

The House chair of the Elder Affairs Committee has lambasted the Senate’s months-long delay in taking up a long-term care reform bill, but his Senate co-chair expressed optimism about the legislation reaching Gov. Maura Healey’s desk this session.

“We are working very hard with the Ways and Means staff and the Senate president’s staff, and I am confident that we will pass a strong bill,” Sen. Pat Jehlen told the News Service.

Asked about the Senate’s timeline to tackle the reform package with less than a month remaining for formal sessions, Jehlen said, “In time to get it before the governor.”

The House unanimously passed legislation (H 4193) in mid-November to strengthen the Department of Public Health’s oversight and enforcement authority over nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, steepen penalties the attorney general can seek for abuse and neglect of patients, invest in workforce development programs, and accelerate the prior authorization request process, among other regulatory and licensing provisions. The bill has been stalled in the Senate Ways and Means Committee since Nov. 20.

“It’s very discouraging,” Elder Affairs Committee co-chair Rep. Thomas Stanley told the News Service. “There really hasn’t been much action at all from the Senate. In fact, the House passed four healthcare-related major bills, and we’ve heard nothing from the Senate. And time is ticking – there’s less than four weeks to go and not a lot of time to negotiate differences.”

Beyond long-term care, the House has passed bills dealing with maternal health, hospital oversight and reform, and the opioid crisis. The Senate in the fall passed a bill to rein in prescription drug costs; it’s been stuck in the House Ways and Means Committee since Nov. 20.

A spokesperson for Senate President Karen Spilka declined to respond to Stanley’s comments, and to News Service questions about whether and when the branch would tackle the long-term care bill.

Stanley said the legislation, long a priority for House Speaker Ron Mariano, could thwart the spate of nursing home closures seen in recent years, which have sent families scrambling to find new care options for their loved ones.

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“Addressing the persistent challenges within the long-term care sector will not only improve the quality of care that residents receive, but it will also increase capacity and help acute care hospitals more efficiently discharge patients to the appropriate post-acute care settings,” Mariano told the News Service.

The bill would also allow the Department of Public Health to appoint a temporary manager to solve chronic problems at nursing homes and bring them into compliance with state and federal law. That mechanism could have staunched financial and payroll challenges at the Edgar P. Benjamin Healthcare Center, a Mission Hill nursing home that a court ultimately placed into state receivership, said Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association.

“If the bill does not pass, I worry that we’ll have missed an opportunity to really improve patient care and safety, address our workforce issues, and ensure that we have greater accountability and transparency in the sector, which I think is what everybody wants,” Gregorio said. “We’ve certainly weighed in and encouraged the Senate to pass the bill as is, and maybe there will be a couple of other sections, but together that package of reforms, and workforce development and quality improvements, make a best-in-the-nation type of legislation.”

Jennifer Benson, state director of AARP Massachusetts, called on lawmakers to reform the long-term care sector in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and to prepare for the commonwealth’s aging population.

“We’re in constant contact with legislators and we’re optimistic that (the bill) will be taken up soon,” Benson said. “We’re encouraged the Legislature has made this a priority and remain hopeful that it will pass.”

Stanley pointed out other priority bills for the Elder Affairs Committee are also lodged before legislative panels. Legislation allowing nurses to deliver basic health services to assisted living residents (S 2527) is awaiting action before the Senate Ways and Means Committee, while a bill creating a licensing process for non-medical home care services (H 649) is before the House Ways and Means Committee.

Stanley said he’s been in “constant contact” with House Ways and Means but said the committee may not be advancing the home care bill amid apparent Senate inaction on health care matters. Jehlen, asked about the assisted living bill, said, “We hope to pass that, as well.”