Lolley: Seniors Need Home Health Access More Than Ever
Wednesday, July 1, 2020
HCAF's Executive Director Bobby Lolley, RN, penned an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel about the critical importance of access to home health now more than ever for Florida's senior population. Below is the full text of the op-ed.
Seniors Need Home Health Access More Than Ever
By Bobby Lolley, Guest Columnist
While the Sunshine State has been a haven for seniors to live out their golden years, the COVID-19 national health emergency is creating unprecedented challenges for Florida’s growing population of seniors — and the health-care professionals who serve them.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 80 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the United States have been in adults 65 years old and older, while three-quarters of patients hospitalized with the novel coronavirus are over age 50, as of June 25.
Older Americans living with serious chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory illness are even more vulnerable to COVID-19. Needless to say, too many seniors have lost their lives to this virus, a tragic development whose effects will be felt for years to come.
In a state accustomed to responding to hurricanes and major natural disasters, home health is uniquely prepared to help seniors stay healthy and out of the hospital during this challenging time. Allowing seniors to access health care at home is a convenient way to ensure they get the care they need while maintaining social distancing and maximizing patient safety.
Moreover, as front-line providers, home health-care workers have been crucial for identifying patients who are symptomatic for the virus, checking in on patients and their caregivers, and providing specialized treatments according to each senior’s unique needs.
Some hospital systems and home health providers have formed unique partnerships to respond to the COVID-19 emergency. When it became clear that emergency departments could be overwhelmed, one hospital system in Jacksonville reached out to a handful of home health agencies to create a diversion strategy where patients could be assessed by home health providers who would determine whether or not hospitalization was needed — a perfect example of partnerships that can make a huge difference.
Going forward, as Florida and states across the country begin reopening, federal support will be needed to ensure seniors can continue accessing the care they need in the home setting. Indeed, under current policy, far too many obstacles remain that prevent seniors from fully unlocking the benefits of these vital services amidst this unprecedented pandemic.
Locally, home health providers would love to partner more effectively with long-term care and assisted-living facilities, where a disproportionate number of seniors have been impacted by the coronavirus. Currently, direct-care workers —who are trained to safely provide services like wound care, therapy, and help with daily living activities such as eating and bathing — are too often shut out of long-term care settings during the pandemic. While facilities are right to limit access in order to stop potential virus transmission, home health care professionals should be treated as clinical partners, not as mere vendors.
Anecdotal reports show that these measures are instead having the opposite effect. In one chain of facilities that stopped allowing home health nurses and therapists to care for patients, there was a frightening increase in senior falls. Once they realized this problem, the facility once again invited physical therapists in to treat residents — a win-win partnership. Florida’s seniors would be better served by more facilities understanding what home health is able to do to assist patients.
From Washington, D.C., there is much more that can be done to support the delivery of home health during COVID-19. Additional funding to home health through increased allocations to the Provider Relief Funds would help stabilize home health agencies and prevent widespread agency fiscal instability and staff layoffs while protecting patient access to care.
Further, home health nurses and clinicians should have more flexible use of technology, like telephones and telehealth units, to monitor existing patients who are fearful of allowing others into their homes. If Medicare would consider telephonic visits a part of the care plan, it would allow enable home health providers to reach more patients during the COVID-19 crisis.
In the midst of the greatest public health emergency in a century, these challenges create a double whammy for our communities. At a time when we should all be working closely together to further streamline care; steps must be taken to better enable the delivery of home health.
To make sure all of our seniors get the support they need to stay healthy, institutional facilities and policymakers must recognize the value that home health brings and make it easier for skilled professionals to serve America’s Medicare beneficiaries.
Bobby Lolley is Executive Director of the Home Care Association of Florida.