Biden Seeks $400 Billion to Buttress Long-Term Care

Biden Seeks $400 Billion to Buttress Long-Term Care. A Look at What's at  Stake. | Kaiser Health News

There’s widespread agreement that it’s important to help older adults and people with disabilities remain independent as long as possible. But are we prepared to do what’s necessary, as a nation, to make this possible?

That’s the challenge President Joe Biden has put forward with his bold proposal to spend $400 billion over eight years on home and community-based services, a major part of his $2 trillion infrastructure plan.

It’s a “historic and profound” opportunity to build a stronger framework of services surrounding vulnerable people who need considerable ongoing assistance, said Ai-jen Poo, director of Caring Across Generations, a national group advocating for older adults, individuals with disabilities, families and caregivers.

It comes as the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and group homes, killing more than 174,000 people and triggering awareness of the need for more long-term care options.

“There’s a much greater understanding now that it is not a good thing to be stuck in long-term care institutions” and that community-based care is an “essential alternative, which the vast majority of people would prefer,” said Ari Ne’eman, senior research associate at Harvard Law School’s Project on Disability.

“The systems we do have are crumbling” due to underfunding and understaffing, and “there has never been a greater opportunity for change than now,” said Katie Smith Sloan, president of LeadingAge, at a recent press conference where the president’s proposal was discussed. LeadingAge is a national association of more than 5,000 nonprofit nursing homes, assisted living centers, senior living communities and home care providers.

But prospects for the president’s proposal are uncertain. Republicans decry its cost and argue that much of what the proposed American Jobs Plan contains, including the emphasis on home-based care, doesn’t count as real infrastructure.

“Though this [proposal] is a necessary step to strengthen our long-term care system, politically it will be a challenge,” suggested Joseph Gaugler, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, who studies long-term care.

Even advocates acknowledge the proposal doesn’t address the full extent of care needed by the nation’s rapidly growing older population. In particular, middle-income seniors won’t qualify directly for programs that would be expanded. They would, however, benefit from a larger, better paid, better trained workforce of aides that help people in their homes — one of the plan’s objectives.

“This [plan] isn’t everything that’s needed, not by any step of the imagination,” Poo said. “What we really want to get to is universal access to long-term care. But that will be a multistep process.”

Understanding what’s at stake is essential as communities across the country and Congress begin discussing Biden’s proposal.

The services in question. Home and community-based services help people who need significant assistance live at home as opposed to nursing homes or group homes.

Services can include home visits from nurses or occupational therapists; assistance with personal care such as eating or bathing; help from case managers; attendance at adult day centers; help with cooking, cleaning and other chores; transportation; and home repairs and modifications. It can also help pay for durable medical equipment such as wheelchairs or oxygen tanks.

The need. At some point, 70% of older adults will require help with dressing, hygiene, moving around, managing finances, taking medications, cooking, housekeeping and other daily needs, usually for two to four years. As the nation’s aging population expands to 74 million in 2030 (the year all baby boomers will have entered older age), that need will expand exponentially.

Younger adults and children with conditions such as cerebral palsy, blindness or intellectual disabilities can similarly require significant assistance.

The burden on families. Currently, 53 million family members provide most of the care that vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities require — without being paid and often at significant financial and emotional cost. According to AARP, family caregivers on average devote about 24 hours a week, to helping loved ones and spend around $7,000 out-of-pocket.

This reflects a sobering reality: Long-term care services are simply too expensive for most individuals and families. According to a survey last year by Genworth, a financial services firm, the hourly cost for a home health aide averages $24. Annually, assisted living centers charge an average $51,600, while a semiprivate room in a nursing home goes for $93,075.

Medicare limitations. Many people assume that Medicare — the nation’s health program for 61 million older adults and people with severe disabilities — will pay for long-term care, including home-based services. But Medicare coverage is extremely limited.

In the community, Medicare covers home health only for older adults and people with severe disabilities who are homebound and need skilled services from nurses and therapists. It does not pay for 24-hour care or care for personal aides or homemakers. In 2018, about 3.4 million Medicare members received home health services.

In nursing homes, Medicare pays only for rehabilitation services for a maximum of 100 days. It does not provide support for long-term stays in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.

Medicaid options. Medicaid — the federal-state health program for 72 million children and adults in low-income households — can be an alternative, but financial eligibility standards are strict and only people with meager incomes and assets qualify.

Medicaid supports two types of long-term care: home and community-based services and those provided in institutions such as nursing homes. But only care in institutions is mandated by the federal government. Home and community-based services are provided at the discretion of the states.

Although all states offer home and community-based services of some kind, there’s enormous variation in the types of services offered, who is served (states can set caps on enrollment) and state spending. Generally, people need to be frail enough to need nursing home care to qualify.

Nationally, 57% of Medicaid’s long-term care budget goes to home and community-based services — $92 billion in the 2018 federal budget year. But half of states still spend twice as much on institutional care as they do on community-based care. And 41 states have waiting lists, totaling nearly 820,000 people, with an average wait of 39 months.

Based on the best information available, between 4 million and 5 million people receive Medicaid-funded home and community-based services — a fraction of those who need care.

Workforce issues. Biden’s proposal doesn’t specify how $400 billion in additional funding would be spent, beyond stating that access to home and community-based care would be expanded and caregivers would receive “a long-overdue raise, stronger benefits, and an opportunity to organize or join a union.”

Caregivers, including nursing assistants and home health and personal care aides, earn $12 an hour, on average. Most are women of color; about one-third of those working for agencies don’t receive health insurance from their employers.

By the end of this decade, an extra 1 million workers will be needed for home-based care — a number of experts believe will be difficult, if not impossible, to reach given poor pay and working conditions.

“We have a choice to keep these poverty-wage jobs or make them good jobs that allow people to take pride in their work while taking care of their families,” said Poo of Caring Across Generations.

Next steps. Biden’s plan leaves out many details. For example: What portion of funding should go to strengthening the workforce? What portion should be devoted to eliminating waiting lists? What amount should be spent on expanding services?

How will inequities of the current system — for instance, the lack of accessible services in rural counties or for people with dementia — be addressed? “We want to see funding to states tied to addressing those inequities,” said Amber Christ, directing attorney of the health team at Justice in Aging, an advocacy organization.

Meanwhile, supporters of the plan suggest it could be just the opening of a major effort to shore up other parts of the safety net. “There are huge gaps in the system for middle-income families that need to be addressed,” said David Certner, AARP’s legislative counsel.

Reforms that should be considered include tax credits for caregivers, expanding Medicare’s home health benefit and removing the requirement that people receiving Medicare home health be homebound, said Christ of Justice in Aging.

We should be looking more broadly at potential solutions that reach people who have some resources but not enough to pay for these services as well,” she said.

A preview of a longer pandemic

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All the things that could prolong the COVID-19 pandemic — that could make this virus a part of our lives longer than anyone wants — are playing out right in front of our eyes.

Driving the news: The British variant is driving another surge in cases in Michigan, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has resisted reimposing any of the lockdown measures she embraced earlier in the pandemic.

  • Variants are beginning to infect more kids — “a brand new ball game,” as University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm recently put it.
  • New research confirms that our existing vaccines don’t work as well against the South African variant.
  • And some experts fear the pace of vaccinations in the U.S. is about to slow down.

Between the lines: The concern isn’t necessarily that the facts on the ground right now could end up being disastrous, but rather that we’re getting a preview of the longer, darker coronavirus future the U.S. may face without sufficient vaccinations.

  • If we don’t control the virus well enough, then even years into the future, we could be living through more new variants — some of which might be more deadly, some of which might be more resistant to vaccines, some of which might be more dangerous for certain specific populations.
  • That would translate into an ongoing risk of illness or potentially death for unvaccinated people and new races to reformulate vaccines as new variants keep emerging.
  • And it would lead to a world in which today’s vaccine-eager population would have to stay on top of those emerging risks, get booster shots when they’re available, and perhaps revive some of the pandemic’s social-distancing measures, in order to stay safe.

Millions of Americans remain vulnerable as cases rise

Coronavirus cases are on the rise again in several states, partially a result of variants of the virus becoming more widespread, experts say.

Why it matters: Even though a remarkable 72% of Americans 65 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, millions of Americans — particularly younger Americans with underlying conditions — remain vulnerable.

Driving the news: Coronavirus cases are rapidly rising in places including Michigan, New York, New Jersey and other Northeastern states.

  • In Michigan, the number of hospitalized younger adults has dramatically increased this month. Coronavirus hospitalizations increased by 633% for those aged 30 to 39 and by 800% for those aged 40 to 49, the Detroit Free Press reports.
  • The variant that originated in the U.K., which is partially driving the new surge, appears to be more transmissible and deadlier.

The big picture: “There are certainly many people who are not vaccinated who are still at severe risk themselves because of underlying medical issues,” said Leana Wen, a visiting professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University.

  • Because of vaccination demographics and who’s at highest risk of exposure, “the proportion of people who are hospitalized and who will die will likely skew toward a younger subset,” she said.

Between the lines: Those still vulnerable to the virus are disproportionately people of color.

  • That’s because prioritizing people for vaccines based on age disproportionately benefits white Americans, who tend to be older than people of color.
  • But younger people of color are tend to be at higher risk of severe infections because of underlying conditions.

What they’re saying: “To address areas of outbreak, we should allocate more of the increased vaccine supply coming into the market to places where penetration is low and infection rates high, like metro Detroit,” former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb tweeted.

Marc Harrison: The nation could learn a thing or two from Utahns about keeping people healthy

https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/commentary/2021/03/12/marc-harrison-nation/

Marc HarrisonM.D., is president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare.

We are better served by a system that seeks to keep people healthy, not wait until they get sick.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that there’s a much better way to keep people healthy while reducing stress on our health care system at the same time. This will not only help mitigate risks from any future public health crisis, but also improve the well being and health of people in our community.

Utah’s Intermountain Healthcare, along with our community and health care colleagues, are leading a movement to do just that.

We greatly value and appreciate all our government, community and health care partners that coordinate closely with us to address the pandemic and provide care for our communities. It’s been a statewide team effort and will continue to be a team effort.

The roots of a deeply flawed national health care model that had taken hold long ago proved to create both systemic and personal health risks. According to a recent study, the U.S. had far more people hospitalized, more people with chronic conditions, double the obesity rates and the highest rate of preventable deaths among comparable nations. This was before the pandemic ever started. Our national health system was perfectly designed to be overwhelmed under the COVID-19 stress.

Moreover, many people who have died from COVID-19 were in poor health to begin with or were managing preventable chronic conditions. The flawed national health care system was never designed to support their goal to stay healthy. Instead, it was designed to wait until they got sick and then treat them.

Utah has one of the lowest death rates from COVID-19 in the nation. It’s at least partly true that this can be attributed to the superb care by medical providers in the state. But the data show a more interesting story. People in our state are in better health compared to those in other states.

We play outside more, drink less and smoke less than people in other states. Our rate of obesity is far lower than most other states. It’s no surprise that our recorded COVID-19 death rate is among the lowest in the nation. In fact, three of the top five healthiest states also have the three of the top six lowest recordable death rates from COVID-19. We don’t believe that’s a coincidence.

Over the last several years, Intermountain has focused more resources on keeping people healthy and out of hospitals. Vaccines have long been a critical part of this strategy. And while that garners most of the immediate headlines, we’ve geared our entire system’s strategy to focus on keeping people and communities well.

For example, Intermountain is a world leader in precision genomics medicine that aims to better treat and prevent genetic diseases. The opportunity to participate in the biggest, voluntary research of its kind is available for anyone in our community at no cost. With our community’s help, we can eventually share what we learn with others across the country and the world to help keep everyone healthier.

We are investing in addressing social determinants of health to keep people out of emergency rooms or other clinical settings for unneeded visits. Social determinants of health are influences that affect people’s long-term health, such as stable housing, joblessness, hunger, unsafe neighborhoods and access to transportation.

We’ve been working with and providing funding to multiple local nonprofit agencies that address these issues, and have provided financial support for a three-year pilot in Utah to see how community partnerships can address those influences in low-income ZIP codes. Often, simple and affordable changes can help prevent unnecessary health issues.

We’ve integrated mental health care with primary care because we know that mental health is essential to a person’s overall health. Long before the pandemic hit our shores, we deployed telehealth services that helps care for people closer to their homes and families. It’s not simply a matter of convenience for those we serve, but can lead to better health outcomes for less money.

All of us can’t wait to get back to some sense of normal. But for the nation’s health system, going back to normal shouldn’t be an option. We must do better. And Intermountain is determined to partner with Utahns and do what we all do best – lead the nation and the world by setting a better example.

The ARP comes to the rescue of the ACA, for now

https://mailchi.mp/b0535f4b12b6/the-weekly-gist-march-12-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

ACA Enrollment is BACK, BIGTIME! Here's *10* important things to remember  to help you #GetCovered! | ACA Signups

On Thursday, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act of 2021 into law, committing nearly $1.9T of federal spending to boost the nation’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to direct payments to American families, extension of unemployment benefits, several anti-poverty measures, and aid to state and local governments, the plan also contains several key healthcare measures.

Approved by Congress on a near party-line vote using the budget reconciliation process, the law includes the broadest expansion of the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) to date. It extends subsidies for upper-middle income individuals to purchase coverage on the Obamacare exchanges, caps premiums for those higher earners at a substantially lower level, and boosts subsidies for those at the lower end of the income scale.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that expanded ACA subsidies in the ARP will result in 2.5M more Americans gaining coverage in the next two years. Fully subsidized COBRA coverage for workers who lost their jobs due to COVID is also extended through the end of September, which the CBO estimates will benefit an additional 2M unemployed Americans.

The ARP also puts in place new support for Medicaid, enhancing coverage for home-based care, maternity services, and COVID testing and vaccination, and providing new incentives for the 12 states which haven’t yet expanded Medicaid eligibility under the ACA to do so. In addition to the ACA’s 90 percent match for those states’ Medicaid expansion populations, the lucky dozen will also receive a 5 percent bump to federal matching for the rest of their Medicaid populations should they choose to expand.
 
Three policy changes of keen interest to providers were left out of the final version of the bill. First, while a special relief fund of $8.5B was created for rural providers, there was no additional allocation of relief funds for hospitals and other providers, similar to the $178B allocated by the CARES Act, despite initial proposals of up to $35B in additional funding. (Around $25B of the initial round of provider relief is still unspent.) Second, the ARP did not extend or alter the repayment schedule for advance payments to providers made last year, in spite of industry pressure to implement more favorable repayment conditions. Finally, the new law does not extend last year’s pause on sequester-related cuts to Medicare reimbursement, although the House is expected to consider a separate measure to address that issue next week.

Notably, the coverage-related provisions of the ARP are only temporary, lasting through September of next year. That sets up the 2022 midterm elections as yet another campaign cycle dominated by promises to uphold and protect the Affordable Care Act—by then a 12-year-old law bolstered by this week’s COVID recovery legislation.

Disparities may worsen as vaccine eligibility widens

https://mailchi.mp/85f08f5211a4/the-weekly-gist-february-5-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Early data on vaccine distribution by race and ethnicity show a mismatch between those population groups receiving the vaccine, and those that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. As the graphic above shows, Black and Hispanic Americans have thus far been vaccinated at considerably lower rates in many states compared to their share of population as a whole—and these disparities are likely to worsen as states shift focus to senior populations for priority access, moving away from prioritizing essential workers, who tend to be more racially diverse.

The White population skews older, which stands to widen disparities in the near-term. Another compounding issue: vaccine hesitancy.

A recent Morning Consult poll found that, despite an overall increase in overall vaccine willingness, Black Americans remain the most hesitant, with only 48 percent willing to get the vaccine.

Meanwhile, Black and Hispanic Americans continue to be disproportionately impacted by COVID, with hospitalization and death rates nearly three to four times greater than those of White Americans.

Hesitancy will become an increasingly urgent problem as larger swathes of the population become eligible for vaccination, especially given that communities of color tend to be younger, as shown above.

What America’s Richest Ski Town’s Handling of COVID-19 Says About the Country

A view of the JHMR slopes and the village at the base of the mountain in Jackson, Wyoming.

Tucked in the shadow of the Tetons, the town of Jackson, Wy., and surrounding Teton County is home to less than 25,000 fulltime residents, but annually hosts over 2.5 million visitors. The valley’s natural beauty attracts an influx of tourists, who in turn are responsible for roughly 30% of the region’s jobs and over $1 billion in annual revenue, but this year, visitors came with an unwelcome price tag for locals: “Every time in this pandemic that we’ve had an influx of visitation, whether that’s second homeowners, or people just coming for a weekend, it follows with an uptick in cases and hospitalizations” says Dr. Jeff Greenbaum, medical director at the Emergency Department for St. John’s hospital and the Jackson Hole Mountain Ski Resort (JHMR) ski patrol.

With just one major hospital and eight emergency room physicians serving Teton County, any increase in COVID-19 cases is cause for concern. And in January, following the Christmas and New Year’s tourism rush, COVID-19 cases in Teton County skyrocketed to some of their highest levels since the pandemic began. Despite these developments, the ski resort, hotels, bars and restaurants remain open in the town. And Greenbaum remains optimistic that with the right strategies and precautions, the small hospital will not be overwhelmed by cases and skiing can stay open during the season for both visitors and locals. “The nightmare scenario is if the patients are stacking up in the emergency room and we don’t have enough personnel to treat them,” says Greenbaum. “But we’ll see that coming in advance, and we are not there yet.” The local hospital still has over 50% of its ICU beds unoccupied and has no COVID-19 patient on a ventilator. JHMR is similarly optimistic that it can stay open the entire season, trusting in the protocols it has put in place to protect both guests and staff.

Teton is the wealthiest county in the U.S., with a per capita income of over $250,000. At the start of the pandemic, a flurry of private jets landed at the Jackson Hole Airport, sometimes with a private ventilator in tow, as second homeowners and new buyers escaped to this rural paradise. Greenbaum posits that part of the reason why St. John’s hasn’t been overrun by cases is that many of the tourists that get COVID-19 in Teton County might not stay to get treatment in Teton County. At a time when millions of Americans are out of work, when daily infection rates are at an all-time high, and when thousands across the country are dying daily from the virus, should the wealthy indulge in an après ski, looking out onto the beautiful Teton mountains, all while potentially shuttling COVID-19 into and out of Jackson?

This place is pretty much a gigantic country club, relying on second homeowners and tourism for its revenue,” says Jesse Bryant, a doctoral candidate in American Sociology at Yale University and creator of Yonder Liesa podcast exploring the history of Jackson Hole. “But Jackson has to balance the ultra-wealthy with the real reality of people eking out a living here. Teton County has the largest income gap of any county in the U.S., with the top 1% making almost 150 times more than the other 99%. From mountain guides to house cleaners to bartenders, much of the employment in Jackson cannot easily be transitioned to remote work, meaning that Jackson’s working class are among the most susceptible to unemployment from the pandemicAll across America the costs of the pandemic are being born by the poorest members of society; Pew Research Center survey from September found that about 50% of low-income Americans say they or someone in their household has lost employment or had take a pay cut due to the pandemic, and similarly about 50% of low-income Americans reported having trouble paying their bills since the pandemic started.

During the spring and summer, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed by the federal government at the start of the pandemic had provided $600 in additional unemployment payment per week, assuring many local and seasonal workers that their livelihoods were safe even if their jobs weren’t. But almost a year into the pandemic, Jackson’s working class are left with far fewer options: federal unemployment relief dropped to $300 and state unemployment benefits in Wyoming, although extended by 13 weeks, dry up after 39 weeks. “Many of the workers here don’t have a six-month buffer saved up,” said one restaurant worker who wished to remain anonymous for risk of losing their job, “so, while tourism presents a risk, we’re willing to take it to keep our paychecks coming in.”

This is the predicament that America has put herself in: a country with a limited safety net during the pandemic forces her workers to choose between the risk of getting sick, or losing their livelihoods. The mountain and the town are left trying to find a balance between keeping the economy open for tourists, and keeping COVID-19 out. As the second largest employer in Teton County, JHMR takes center stage in this unfolding drama. The resort is responsible for the livelihood of around 2,000 seasonal and local workers, and if the mountain were to shut down, many of the ancillary services in the town, like hotels, restaurants, rental shops, clothing stores and other retailers, would likely shutter their doors as well. In 2017, when the resort had to close for five days because of a power outage, the net economic impact to the local economy topped $5.5 million. “What’s happening in Jackson isn’t just a story of wealthy people coming into the rural west and getting the locals sick,” says Bryant. “This place has become more like a symbiotic relationship.”

One particularly vulnerable population is the Latino community, a significant number of which is undocumented, that lives in Jackson, and in the neighboring towns of Victor and Driggs. While it’s difficult to get exact numbers of their contribution to the economy, these workers keep Jackson running by filling jobs in all sectors, from house cleaners and construction workers to cooks and waiters.

“I’ve lived in Jackson for 25 years and used to go back to Mexico every winter because it was just too cold,” says Jorge, an undocumented construction worker in the town. “But then I got used to the cold and began skiing every single day.” Asked whether opening up the resort is worth the risk of bringing more COVID-19 into Jackson, Jorge says that by and large the Latino community welcomes the tourism with open arms, because it means job security. This lines up with findings from a survey undertaken by the Yale School of Environment this past summer, showing that Latino residents in the rural West had some of the highest rates of COVID-related unemployment in the country. “My wife and I work hard, her as a house cleaner, me in construction,” said Jorge. “The resort opening up and tourists coming to town is how many of us make our living.”

For its part, JHMR has been doing nearly everything within its power to keep COVID-19 from spreading on its slopes, iterating as the situation evolves to try to keep the 2021 season operating. In March of 2020, as the first wave of the pandemic was sweeping across the globe, the Wyoming State Health Officer shut down JHMR for the remainder of the season. The resort reopened in May, first for hikers and then mountain bikers—the summer tourists that in total are only about 10% the size of the winter tourist population. Before reopening for the summer crowd, it tested every single one of its staff members for COVID-19, and the resort’s human resources department transitioned into a contact-tracing team, coordinating with town officials whenever a case arose. While Wyoming didn’t issue a statewide mask mandate until Dec. 7, the resort instituted a mandatory mask policy during the summer. JHMR also learned to be more flexible in its operations: staff are now trained to perform a number of different functions, so they can sub in if there’s a shortage in a department, and shifts function as separate pods, meaning that if a person in one group has been exposed to COVID-19, another totally isolated pod can come in to take its place.

Over the summer and fall, tourists came in droves to Jackson, with as many as 40,000 total visitors in a dayAccording to the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks—both within a quick drive from of Jackson—had about 50% more visitors in October of 2020 than they did for the same month in 2019. While many of the outdoor activities that bring people to Teton County during the summer—hiking, biking, climbing—have been deemed relatively safe during the pandemic, tourists also flocked indoors to the bars, restaurants and stores that remained open throughout most of the summer and fall. As a result, Teton County experienced large COVID-19 spikes in July and again at the end of October and into November.

Unsurprisingly, workers got sick. In response, Teton County’s Health Officer, Travis Riddell, sent out a series of recommendations pressing citizens to not gather with groups outside of their immediate family, avoid crowded indoor spaces and not congregate at trail heads, parks or other outside spaces. Still, most businesses stayed open as patrons kept coming. Riddell noted that the town had little choice: “Economic disasters are public health disasters,” Riddell said in an interview in July 2020 to National Geographic. “We know that when there are economic downturns, where there is an increase in poverty, an increase in uninsured numbers—that has direct health effects.”

Once JHMR opened for skiing the weekend after Thanksgiving, it was clear that demand for outdoor recreation would carry into winter; even with almost no international travel, JHMR expects demand during the 2021 winter months to be comparable to past years, at least. “If we just opened up [completely], the mountain would be packed, because demand itself is through the roof,” says LaMotte, “but we’ve imposed a maximum daily capacity for the mountain, to keep guests and staff safe.”

On a bluebird day near Christmas, the resort was sold out. It had snowed almost 15 inches the day before, and cars inched into the packed parking lot. Skiers and snowboarders waited in line for the lot shuttle bus, which, despite operating at 25% capacity, still felt uncomfortably full. The restaurants and bars looking out onto the sunny mountain were similarly capped at 25% capacity, and while masks and social distancing were required, patrons waiting for tables escaped the cold by standing shoulder to shoulder in the foyer.

At the resort, the socially distanced lines for the gondola were dangerously compressing. A resort worker cheerfully reminded guests from every corner of the U.S. to keep their distance and their masks above their noses. “We’re going to make it all the way through the season, without closing” yelled the worker, to cheers from the crowds. The lines moved slow—normally eight people fit onto the gondola, but under the new policies there was no mixing between groups, so often times the gondola ascends with just one or two passengers. At the top of the mountain, with views of the valley floor against the backdrop of the jagged Tetons, everyone breathed a bit easier.

Rob Kingwill and Emilé Zynobia, professional snowboarders based out of Jackson, stepped off the gondola into the cold Wyoming air, about 4,000 feet above the valley floor. Both sported COVID-19 masks made by Kingwill’s apparel company, Avalon 7. “I feel like this is almost an essential service, to give people the opportunity to be outside, said Kingwill. “We need this for our mental health.” When JHMR shut down in March of 2020, Kingwill strapped his snowboard to his backpack and hiked up Teton Pass’s infamous 1,300-foot Glory Boot Pack—every day for 77 days until all the snow had melted. But, he points out, most recreational skiers don’t have the knowledge and skills to navigate such technical terrain—and without the money those tourists bring in, Jackson’s working class would suffer. “It seems like the benefits outweigh the costs of keeping the resort open,” agreed Zynobia, as she and Kingwill strapped onto their boards. “Even though this is an activity skewed towards to wealthier people, it is helping a remote economy, and it is getting people outside at a time when we feel caged in.”

By the middle of January, Teton County’s COVID-19 cases were skyrocketing. Teton County currently has the highest caseload per capita of any county in the state of Wyoming and the highly contagious U.K. variant of COVID-19 was found to be circulating in the area. While the state of Wyoming had loosened COVID-19 gathering restrictions, the county reissued a series of guidelines on Jan. 25 that kept indoor gatherings capped at 25% and limited outdoor gatherings to 250 guests. At the resort, group ski lessons have been replaced by private lessons (at no extra cost), and the gondolas and lifts are ascending the mountain with minimal group mixing. Still JHMR can only control what happens on the mountain; “My main concern is not skiing itself,” says Greenbaum. “But rather I’m concerned about peripheral activity to skiing that lead people indoors, whether it’s a bar, a restaurant, a hotel lobby, a rental shop, a bus.”

Across the nation cases are surging, and other Colorado mountain towns like Telluride and Crested Butte have had similar spikes, likely due to an influx of winter tourism. The infection rate in Pitkin County, Colo., home to the Aspen and Snowmass ski resorts, was skyrocketing in the middle of January, with an incidence rate of about 3,500 per 100,000 people. In response, the county’s health department shut down all indoor dinning operations, but left the ski resorts open. The results were promising: in the past two weeks the COVID-19 rates for Pitkin County dropped by over 50%. “We’re on pace to be below 700 [cases per 100,000 people] in early February and I don’t think any of us thought that would happen so quickly,” said Josh Vance, the county’s epidemiologist, in an interview with the Aspen Times. “I’ll be honest—I think not having indoor dining plays a role.”

In Teton County, restaurants and bars remain open for indoor operations long as they follow social distancing guidelines. The reliance on the ultra-rich creates an undeniable risk to the livelihood of Jackson residents and workers. In the early days of the pandemic, ski resorts across Europe became super spreaders, with visitors transporting the virus like carry-on luggage, threatening other tourists and locals alike. As a result, resorts have been closed this winter across much of Europe, including in France, Germany and Italy. These precautions protect remote mountain towns from an influx of the virus, but there are other, massive costs associated with closing down. Without government support, there is little option for communities like Jackson but to stay open, follow existing public health guidelines and hope for the best. “When the pandemic first started coming to work felt like entering the lion’s den,” said the restaurant worker from Jackson who wished to remain anonymous. “But by now we’re all used to the risk, and really what choice do we have?”

Essential workers get lost in the vaccine scrum as states prioritize the elderly

Norma Leiva, a Food 4 Less warehouse manager, waits Saturday to be let into work in Panorama City, Calif. The state’s decision to expand vaccine eligibility to millions of older residents has stark consequences for communities of color disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

As a warehouse manager at a Food 4 Less in Los Angeles, Norma Leiva greets delivery drivers hauling in soda and chips and oversees staff stocking shelves and helping customers. At night, she returns to the home she shares with her elderly mother-in-law, praying the coronavirus isn’t traveling inside her.

A medical miracle at the end of last year seemed to answer her prayers: Leiva, 51, thought she was near the front of the line to receive a vaccine, right after medical workers and people in nursing homes. Now that California has expanded eligibility to millions of older residents — in a bid to accelerate the administration of the vaccines — she is mystified about when it will be her turn.

The latest I’ve heard is that we’ve been pushed back. One day I hear June, another mid-February,” said Leiva, whose sister, also in the grocery business, was sickened last year with the virus, which has pummeled Los Angeles County — the first U.S. county to record 1 million cases. “I want the elderly to get it because I know they’re in need of it, but we also need to get it, because we’re out there serving them. If we’re not healthy, our community’s not healthy.”

Delaying vaccinations for front-line workers, especially food and grocery workers, has stark consequences for communities of color disproportionately affected by the pandemic. “In the job we do,” Leiva said, “we are mostly Blacks and Hispanics.”

Many states are trying to speed up a delayed and often chaotic rollout of coronavirus vaccines by adding people 65 and older to near the front of the line. But that approach is pushing others back in the queue, especially because retired residents are more likely to have the time and resources to pursue hard-to-get appointments. As a result, workers who often face the highest risk of exposure to the virus will be waiting longer to get protected, according to experts, union officials and workers.

The shifting priorities illuminate political and moral dilemmas fundamental to the mass vaccination campaign: whether inoculations should be aimed at rectifying racial disparities, whether the federal government can apply uniform standards and whether local decision-making will emphasize more than ease of administration.

Speed has become all the more critical with the emergence of highly transmissible variants of the virus. Only by performing 3 million vaccinations a day — more than double the current rate — can the country stay ahead of the rapid spread of new variants, according to modeling conducted by Paul Romer, a Nobel Prize-winning economist.

People with appointments wait in line to receive coronavirus vaccine in Los Angeles. 

But low-wage workers without access to sick leave are among those most likely to catch and transmit new variants, said Richard Besser, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because there are not enough doses of the vaccines to immunize front-line workers and everyone over 65, he said, officials should carefully weigh combating the pernicious effects of the virus on communities of color against the desire to expedite the rate of inoculation.

“If the obsession is over the number of people vaccinated,” Besser said, “we could end up vaccinating more people, while leaving those people at greatest risk exposed to ongoing rates of infection.”

The move to broaden vaccine availability to a wider swath of the elderly population — backed by Trump administration officials in their final days in office and members of President Biden’s health team — marks a departure from expert guidance set forth in December, as the vaccine rollout was getting underway.

A panel of experts advising the CDC recommended that the second priority group include front-line essential workers, along with adults 75 and older. The guidance represented a compromise between the desire to shield people most likely to catch and transmit the virus — because they cannot socially distance or work from home — and the effort to protect people most prone to serious complications and death.

People of color and immigrants are overrepresented not just in grocery jobs but also in meatpacking, public transit and corrections facilities, where outbreaks have taken a heavy toll. Black and Latino Americans are three to four timesmore likely than White people to be hospitalized and almost three times more likely to die of covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, according to the CDC.

The desire to make vaccine administration equitable was central to recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

“We cannot abandon equity because it’s hard to measure and it’s hard to do,” Grace Lee, a committee member and a pediatrics professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, said at the time.

On Wednesday at a committee meeting, Lee said officials need both efficiency and equity to “ensure that we are accountable for how we’re delivering vaccine.”

“Absolutely agree we do not want any doses in freezers or wasted in any way,” Lee said.

But efficiency has won out in most places.

Some state leaders, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), acted on their own, lowering the age threshold to 65 soon after distribution began last year. Others followed with the blessing of top federal officials.

Biden’s advisers have said equity will be central to their efforts, calling access in underserved communities a “moral imperative” and promising, in a national vaccination strategy document, “we remain focused on building programs to meet the needs of hard-to-reach and high-risk populations.” In the meantime, they have similarly encouraged states to broaden vaccine availability to a larger segment of their older populations without providing guidance about how to ensure front-line workers remain a priority.

Experts studying health disparities say prioritizing people over 65 disproportionately favors White people, because people of color, especially Black men, tend to die younger, owing to racism’s effect on physical health. Twenty percent of White people are 65 or over, while just 9 percent of people of color are in that age group, according to federal figures.

“People are thinking about risk at an individual level as opposed to at a structural level. People are not understanding that where you work and where you live can actually bring more risks than your age,” said Camara Phyllis Jones, a family physician, epidemiologist and past president of the American Public Health Association. “It’s worse than I thought.”

The constantly changing priorities have made the uneven rollout all the more difficult to navigate. There is confusion over when, where and how to get shots, with different jurisdictions taking different approaches in an illustration of the nation’s decentralized public health system.

While praising the effort to expand access and speed up the administration of shots, Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said increasing reliance on age-based eligibility “must not come at the expense of the essential workers helping families put food on the table during this crisis.

“Public health officials must work with governors in all 50 states to end the delays and act swiftly to distribute the vaccine to grocery and meatpacking workers on the front lines, before even more get sick and die,” he said.

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, said the only way to ensure front-line workers get the vaccines they need is to involve them and their union representatives in decisions about eligibility and access. Unions, she said, could also be tapped to conduct outreach in hard-to-reach communities, including those not conversant in English.

“Essential workers who’ve been on the front lines both in health care but also across the service and care sectors — child care, airline, janitorial, security — face extraordinary risk,” she said.

Leiva, a 33-year member of UFCW Local 770, said the celebration of essential workers should come with recognition of their sacrifice, which is unevenly felt across racial groups. When the virus tore through the grocery store, she said, “every single one of them in that cluster was Hispanic.”

But with hospitals dangerously full in recent weeks, and less than half of distributed vaccine doses administered, many states broadened their top priority groups to include older adults, hoping to lessen the burden on hospitals and expedite vaccine administration.

Leiva is concerned about bringing the coronavirus into the home she shares with her elderly mother-in-law. She wants the elderly to receive the vaccine, “but we also need to get it, because we’re out there serving them. If we’re not healthy, our community’s not healthy.”

Protecting people 65 and older, officials say, saves the lives of those who face the gravest consequences and reduces the stress on intensive care units. Risk for severe covid-19 illness increases with age; 8 out of 10 deaths reported in the United States have been in people 65 and older.

Older people in the United States have also encountered enormous hurdles in gaining access to the vaccines. Faced with overloaded sign-up websites and jammed phone lines, they have sometimes spent nights waiting in line.

In more than half the states — at least 28, by one count — people 65 and older are in the top two priority groups, behind health-care workers and residents in long-term care facilities. As a result, front-line workers either fall behind the older group or are squeezed into the same pool, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis.

“When you make that pool of eligible people much bigger, you’re creating much longer wait times for some of these groups,” said Jennifer Kates, a senior vice president at the foundation.

Front-line workers often labor in crowded conditions. Some live in multigenerational households. By contrast, many older adults are retired, have greater access to sign-up portals and have more time to wait in lines outside of clinics, health officials said.

People wait in line for coronavirus vaccine at a Sarasota, Fla., health department clinic.

“The 65-year-old person who is wealthier and can stay home and isn’t working and is retired and can ride it out for another two months … is less likely to get infected than the person who has to go outside every day for work,” said Roberto B. Vargas, assistant dean for health policy at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced Jan. 13 that the state was “significantly increasing our efforts to get these vaccines administered, get them out of freezers and get them into people’s arms” by increasing the number of people eligible to receive shots. “Everybody 65 and over — about 6.6 million Californians — we are now pulling into the tier to make available vaccines.”

On Jan. 25, Newsom said the state would move to an age-based eligibility system after vaccinating those now at the front of the line, including health-care workers, food and agriculture workers, teachers, emergency personnel and seniors 65 and older.

The abrupt changes confused local health officials.

Julie Vaishampayan, public health officer in San Joaquin Valley’s Stanislaus County, said the county had just finished vaccinating health-care workers and was getting ready to reach out to farm laborers at a tomato-packing company and food-processing workers. When the state added those 65 and older, the county had to pivot abruptly,as it faced a quintessential supply-and-demand dilemma.

“There isn’t enough vaccine to do it all, so how do we balance?” she said in an email. “This is really hard.”

In Tennessee, teachers were initially promised access but then were told to wait until people 70 and older got their shots. The state’s health commissioner, Lisa Piercey, said she was moving more gradually through the age gradations so as not to crowd out workers, treating the federal framework as guidance, which is often how officials have characterized it. “It’s not an either/or situation,” she said in an interview this month.

Keyona Simms puts a hat on Nylah Cooper, 2, at a day-care center in Baltimore. Day-care staff are considered essential workers in many states.

But with vaccine supply sharply limited, priorities had to be narrowed. By vaccinating older residents, she said, the state was also protecting its medical infrastructure by reducing the likelihood that older people, who are more likely to be hospitalized, would fall ill. Once there is more supply, she said, she would be able to amplify aspects of the state’s planning geared toward underserved and hard-to-reach populations. “I can’t wait to manifest that equity plan.”

In Nebraska, the health department in Douglas County, which includes Omaha, prioritized older residents over “critical industry workers who can’t work remotely” after the state expanded eligibility to residents 65 and older, according to a January news release. Meatpacking workers, grocery store employees, teachers and public transit workers were bumped lower in line.

Omaha’s teachers union had wanted its approximately 4,100 members to get shots before the district resumes full-time, in-person instruction for elementary and middle school students Tuesday. Now, they must wait until late spring, said Robert Miller, president of the Omaha Education Association.

The fear, it goes hand in glove with going back to school five days a week,” he said, despite CDC reports that schools operating in person have seen scant transmission. “We’ve had some teachers who have multigenerational homes, who live in the basement, … and they can’t interact with their parents. We have some teachers who are staying at a different apartment away from their elder loved ones.”

Some state leaders sought to defend broadening eligibility to more of the elderly population, saying it was consistent with efforts to address racial disparities. Illinois had reduced the age requirement to 65, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) said recently, “in order to reduce covid-19 mortality and limit community spread in Black and Brown communities.” His office did not respond to a request for comment about how lowering the age threshold would have that effect.

In Massachusetts, state leaders announced Jan. 25 that people 65 and older and those with at least two high-risk medical conditions were next in line, ahead of educators and workers in transit, utility, food and agriculture, sanitation, and public works and public health.

That means Dorothy Williams, who runs a day-care center in a predominantly Black community where the infection rate is among the highest in Boston, has to wait. Her center stayed open throughout the pandemic, caring for children of essential workers, many of them in low-wage jobs in hospitals or nursing homes.

She recognizes the long hours and the exposure risks of those health-care aides. That means “we’re exposed,” she said, “each and every single day.” She has been able to keep the coronavirus at bay, but two weeks ago, she had a scare that forced her to close and get everyone tested after a child became ill. The tests came back negative, but the fear remains.

“We are at risk,” she said.

Insurers add food to coverage menu as way to improve health

https://apnews.com/article/us-news-nutrition-coronavirus-pandemic-d1e17ef502ab92bd41216c90ac60ba5f

When COVID-19 first swarmed the United States, one health insurer called some customers with a question: Do you have enough to eat?

Oscar Health wanted to know if people had adequate food for the next couple weeks and how they planned to stay stocked up while hunkering down at home.

“We’ve seen time and again, the lack of good and nutritional food causes members to get readmitted” to hospitals, Oscar executive Ananth Lalithakumar said.

Food has become a bigger focus for health insurers as they look to expand their coverage beyond just the care that happens in a doctor’s office. More plans are paying for temporary meal deliveries and some are teaching people how to cook and eat healthier foods.

Benefits experts say insurers and policymakers are growing used to treating food as a form of medicine that can help patients reduce blood sugar or blood pressure levels and stay out of expensive hospitals.

“People are finally getting comfortable with the idea that everybody saves money when you prevent certain things from happening or somebody’s condition from worsening,” said Andrew Shea, a senior vice president with the online insurance broker eHealth.

This push is still relatively small and happening mostly with government-funded programs like Medicaid or Medicare Advantage, the privately run versions of the government’s health program for people who are 65 or older or have disabilities. But some employers that offer coverage to their workers also are growing interested.

Medicaid programs in several states are testing or developing food coverage. Next year, Medicare will start testing meal program vouchers for patients with malnutrition as part of a broader look at improving care and reducing costs.

Nearly 7 million people were enrolled last year in a Medicare Advantage plan that offered some sort of meal benefit, according to research from the consulting firm Avalere Health. That’s more than double the total from 2018.

Insurers commonly cover temporary meal deliveries so patients have something to eat when they return from the hospital. And for several years now, many also have paid for meals tailored to patients with conditions such as diabetes.

But now insurers and other bill payers are taking a more nuanced approach. This comes as the coronavirus pandemic sends millions of Americans to seek help from food banks or neighborhood food pantries.

Oscar Health, for instance, found that nearly 3 out of 10 of its Medicare Advantage customers had food supply problems at the start of the pandemic, so it arranged temporary grocery deliveries from a local store at no cost to the recipient.

The Medicare Advantage specialist Humana started giving some customers with low incomes debit cards with either a $25 or $50 on them to help buy healthy food. The insurer also is testing meal deliveries in the second half of the month.

That’s when money from government food programs can run low. Research shows that diabetes patients wind up making more emergency room visits then, said Humana executive Dr. Andrew Renda.

“It may be because they’re still taking their medications but they don’t have enough food. And so their blood sugar goes crazy and then they end up in the hospital,” he said.

The Blue Cross-Blue Shield insurer Anthem connected Medicare Advantage customer Kim Bischoff with a nutritionist after she asked for help losing weight.

The 43-year-old Napoleon, Ohio, resident had lost more than 100 pounds about 11 years ago, but she was gaining weight again and growing frustrated.

The nutritionist helped wean Bischoff from a so-called keto diet largely centered on meats and cheeses. The insurer also arranged for temporary food deliveries from a nearby Kroger so she could try healthy foods like rice noodles, almonds and dried fruits.

Bischoff said she only lost a few pounds. But she was able to stop taking blood pressure and thyroid medications because her health improved after she balanced her diet.

“I learned that a little bit of weight gain isn’t a huge deal, but the quality of my health is,” she said.

David Berwick of Somerville, Massachusetts, credits a meal delivery program with improving his blood sugar, and he wishes he could stay on it. The 64-year-old has diabetes and started the program last year at the suggestion of his doctor. The Medicaid program MassHealth covered it.

Berwick said the nonprofit Community Servings gave him weekly deliveries of dry cereal and premade meals for him to reheat. Those included soups and turkey meatloaf Berwick described as “absolutely delicious.”

“They’re not things I would make on my own for sure,” he said. “It was a gift, it was a real privilege.”

These programs typically last a few weeks or months and often focus on customers with a medical condition or low incomes who have a hard time getting nutritious food. But they aren’t limited to those groups.

Indianapolis-based Preventia Group is starting food deliveries for some employers that want to improve the eating habits of people covered under their health plans. People who sign up start working with a health coach to learn about nutrition.

Then they can either begin short-term deliveries of meals or bulk boxes of food and recipes to try. The employer picks up the cost.

It’s not just about hunger or a lack of good food, said Chief Operating Officer Susan Rider. They’re also educating people about what healthy, nutritious food is and how to prepare it.

Researchers expect coverage of food as a form of medicine to grow as insurers and employers learn more about which programs work best. Patients with low incomes may need help first with getting access to nutritional food. People with employer-sponsored coverage might need to focus more on how to use their diet to manage diabetes or improve their overall health.

A 2019 study of Massachusetts residents with similar medical conditions found that those who received meals tailored to their condition had fewer hospital admissions and generated less health care spending than those who did not.

Study author Dr. Seth Berkowitz of the University of North Carolina noted that those meals are only one method for addressing food or nutrition problems. He said a lot more can be learned “about what interventions work, in what situations and for whom.”

A lack of healthy food “is very clearly associated with poor health, so we know we need to do something about it,” Berkowitz said.

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