Senator says nursing home industry collapsing

Gives Baker administration kudos for handling of pandemic

THE SENATE’S LEAD PERSON on health care issues says the skilled nursing home industry in Massachusetts is struggling to stay afloat amid a virus that has claimed 3,534 lives at the facilities.

“What we are seeing is an industry that was on or near the verge of collapse and it is collapsing,” said Sen. Cindy Friedman of Arlington. Friedman was speaking on the Health or Consequences Codcast with John McDonough of the TH Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University and Paul Hattis of the Tufts University Medical School.

Friedman, the Senate chair of the Health Care Financing Committee, said the Baker administration was right to pump $130 million of Medicaid funding into the industry and launch audits of each nursing home to check compliance with a 28-point checklist for infection control.

“You can argue that it didn’t happen fast enough or it isn’t enough, but what they’re doing right now is what needs to happen. It is a huge issue and it is extremely complicated. What we’re seeing is years of, you know, big companies coming in and buying nursing homes,” she said. “Nursing homes used to be all mom and pop local. Now they’re run by people in places like New Jersey and Texas. They don’t know from Massachusetts.”

Friedman traces a lot of the problem to the nature of the workforce at long-term care facilities, where many workers earn $15 an hour. “It’s a workforce that has been drastically underpaid for the work that they do,” she said. “These people have two jobs, three jobs, they go from one nursing home to another. What did we expect?”

The senator said the system is not sustainable. “People need to be able to come and work there and have one job and be able to learn a living wage,” she said.

The wide-ranging interview touched on many subjects. Friedman said the Legislature has been productive during the pandemic and indicated it’s very possible lawmakers may extend the session beyond the normal July 31 shutdown date to deal with the very uncertain budget situation.

If the session is extended, Friedman said, she will be pushing legislation to deal with mental health and prescription drug pricing. She also said the stability of smaller health care institutions, such as community hospitals, neighborhood health centers, and physician practices, needs to be addressed.

“What do we need and where do we need it?” she asked. “If we have learned nothing from this, we have learned how fragile the health care system is and how difficult it is to deliver care where it’s needed.”

She gives the Baker administration, and particularly its COVID-19 command center, credit for its handling of the crisis. “Given what their challenges have been, they have done an amazing job,” she said. “We’re very, very lucky and I’m really grateful for the bipartisan effort that has gone into it.”

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Friedman said the pandemic has also driven home the importance of social determinants of health, with low-income, minority communities taking the brunt of infections. “If we weren’t clear about what it means to be poor and sick in the United States, we have certainly learned it now,” she said.

“I get up every morning and just thank whoever for the life I have and the privileges I have and my ability to social distance and keep my job,” she said. “When I think about other people in the Commonwealth and the country, I am just fine.”