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Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf, nursing homes come to agreement to boost staff

Nursing home trade associations in Pennsylvania said Monday they have agreed to boost staffing levels as part of a deal with Gov. Tom Wolf to increase aid to an industry struggling with high turnover.

With Pennsylvania awash in surplus tax collections, Wolf on Monday signed legislation authorizing nearly $300 million a year, almost 20% more annually, in additional Medicaid payments to nursing homes, which were wracked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trade associations had worked out a compromise on staffing levels with Wolf's administration and SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, a labor union that represents about 5,000 nursing home workers, prior to the legislations being signed.

“This is a major step forward for Pennsylvania's long-term care industry,” Wolf told a Capitol news conference after signing the legislation.

Officials say the money should boost worker salaries, staffing levels and retention while stabilizing the facilities’ finances and improving the quality of care.

Matt Yarnell, president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, said the ravages of the pandemic on nursing homes helped persuade state budgetmakers to grant an increase in the Medicaid reimbursement rate.

Pennsylvania's Medicaid reimbursement rate increase is the first in almost a decade, trade associations said.

The trade associations had pushed hard for a rate increase, saying some facilities were closing or downsizing because they lose money on each Medicaid-covered resident.

They also fought Wolf’s initial proposal last year to require them to boost direct care hours by 50%.

The staffing agreement provides a modest increase in direct care hours — from 2.7 to 2.87 per patient per day — but sets minimum shift ratios for nurses and nursing assistants to patients.

Wolf's proposal was not “feasible,” given the difficulties of finding and retaining workers, said Garry Pezzano, president of LeadingAge PA, which represents nonprofit nursing homes.

The staffing regulation is expected to be finalized before Wolf leaves office in January.

The higher rate reimbursement takes effect Jan. 1. Lawmakers, in the meantime, approved sending $130 million to nursing homes in federal coronavirus aid to help them hire and retain workers.

Yarnell said he hopes to boost the wages of certified nursing assistants to $20 an hour.

Currently, the statewide average is $16.50, and nursing homes are struggling to keep workers from leaving for other lines of work, including the service industry, said Zack Shamberg, president of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, which represents for-profit nursing homes.

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Marc Levy | Associated Press