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Nursing Homes Are Left in the Dark as More Utilities Cut Power to Prevent Wildfires

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Kate Ruder
Mon, 10 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

When powerful wind gusts created threatening wildfire conditions one day near Boulder, Colorado, the state's largest utility cut power to 52,000 homes and businesses — including Frasier, an assisted living and skilled nursing facility.

It was the first time Xcel Energy preemptively switched off electricity in Colorado as a wildfire prevention tool, according to a company official. The practice, also known as public safety power shut-offs, has taken root in California and is spreading elsewhere as a way to keep downed and damaged power lines from sparking blazes and fueling the 's more frequent and intense wildfires.

In Boulder, Frasier staff and heard about the planned outage from reports. A Frasier official called the utility to confirm and was initially told the home's power would not be affected. The utility then called back to say the home's power would be cut, after all, said Tomas Mendez, Frasier's vice president of operations. The home had just 75 minutes before Xcel Energy shut off the lights on April 6.

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Staff rushed to prepare the 20-acre campus home to nearly 500 residents. Generators kept running the oxygen machines, most refrigerators and freezers, hallway lights, and Wi-Fi for phones and computers. But the heating system and some lights stayed off as the overnight temperature dipped into the 30s.

Power was restored to Frasier after 28 hours. During the shut-off, staff tended to nursing home and assisted living residents, many with dementia, Mendez said.

“These are the folks that depend on us for everything: meals, care, and medications,” he said.

Not knowing when power would be restored, even 24 hours into the crisis, was stressful and expensive, including the next-day cost of refilling fuel for two generators, Mendez said.

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“We're lucky we didn't have any injuries or anything major, but it is likely these could happen when there are power outages — expected or unexpected. And that puts everyone at risk,” Mendez said.

As preemptive power cuts become more widespread, nursing homes are being forced to evaluate their preparedness. But it shouldn't be up to the facilities alone, according to industry and academics: Better communication between utilities and nursing homes, and including the facilities in regional disaster preparedness plans, is critical to keep residents safe.

“We need to prioritize these folks so that when the power does go out, they get to the front of the line to restore their power accordingly,” said David Dosa, chief of geriatrics and professor of medicine at UMass Chan Medical School in Worcester, , of nursing home residents.

Restoring power to hospitals and nursing homes was a priority throughout the windstorm, wrote Xcel Energy spokesperson Tyler Bryant in an email. But, he acknowledged, public safety power shut-offs can improve, and the utility will work with community partners and the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to health facilities prepare for extended power outages in the future.

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When the called for wind gusts of up to 100 mph on April 6, Xcel Energy implemented a public safety power shut-off. Nearly 275,000 customers were without power from the windstorm.

Officials had adapted after the Marshall Fire killed two people and destroyed or damaged more than 1,000 homes in Boulder and the neighboring communities of Louisville and Superior two and a half years ago. Two fires converged to form that blaze, and electricity from an Xcel Energy power line that detached from its pole in hurricane-force winds “was the most probable cause” of one of them.

“A preemptive shutdown is scary because you don't really have an end in mind. They don't tell you the duration,” said Jenny Albertson, director of quality and regulatory affairs for the Colorado Association and Center for Assisted Living.

More than half of nursing homes in the West are within 3.1 miles of an area with elevated wildfire risk, according to a study published last year. Yet, nursing homes with the greatest risk of fire danger in the Mountain West and Pacific Northwest had poorer compliance with federal emergency preparedness standards than their lower-risk counterparts.

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Under federal guidelines, nursing homes must have disaster response plans that include emergency power or building evacuation. Those plans don't necessarily include contingencies for public safety power shut-offs, which have increased in the past five years but are still relatively new. And nursing homes in the West are rushing to catch up.

In California, a more stringent law to bring emergency power in nursing homes up to code is expected by the California Association of Health Facilities to cost over $1 billion. But the state has not allocated any funding for these facilities to comply, said Corey Egel, the association's director of public affairs. The association is asking state officials to delay implementation of the law for five years, to Jan. 1, 2029.

Most nursing homes operate on a razor's edge in terms of federal reimbursement, Dosa said, and it's incredibly expensive to retrofit an old building to keep up with new regulations.

Frasier's three buildings for its 300 residents in independent living apartments each have their own generators, in addition to two generators for assisted living and skilled nursing, but none is hooked up to emergency conditioning or heat because those systems require too much energy.

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Keeping residents warm during a minus-10-degree night or cool during two 90-degree days in Boulder “are the kinds of things we need to think about as we consider a future with preemptive power outages,” Mendez said.

Federal audits of emergency preparedness at nursing homes in California and Colorado found facilities lacking. In Colorado, eight of 20 nursing homes had deficiencies related to emergency supplies and power, according to the . These included three nursing homes without plans for alternate energy sources like generators and four nursing homes without documentation showing generators had been properly tested, maintained, and inspected.

For Debra Saliba, director of UCLA's Anna and Harry Borun Center for Gerontological Research, making sure nursing homes are part of emergency response plans could help them respond effectively to any kind of power outage. Her study of nursing homes after a magnitude 6.7 earthquake that shook the Los Angeles area in 1994 motivated LA County to integrate nursing homes into community disaster plans and drills.

Too often, nursing homes are forgotten during emergencies because they are not seen by government agencies or utilities as health care facilities, like hospitals or dialysis centers, Saliba added.

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Albertson said she is working with hospitals and community emergency response coalitions in Colorado on disaster preparedness plans that include nursing homes. But understanding Xcel Energy's prioritization plan for power restoration would also help her prepare, she said.

Bryant said Xcel Energy's prioritization plan for health facilities specifies not whether their electricity will be turned off during a public safety power shut-off — but how quickly it will be restored.

Julie Soltis, Frasier's director of communications, said the home had plenty of blankets, flashlights, and batteries during the outage. But Frasier plans to invest in headlamps for caregivers, and during a town hall meeting, independent living residents were encouraged to purchase their own backup power for mobile phones and other electronics, she said.

Soltis hopes her facility is spared during the next public safety power shut-off or at least given more time to respond.

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“With weather and climate change, this is definitely not the last time this will happen,” she said.

This article was produced by KFF Health News, a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF — the independent source for health policy research, polling, and journalism. 

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By: Kate Ruder
Title: Nursing Homes Are Left in the Dark as More Utilities Cut Power to Prevent Wildfires
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/nursing-homes-power-shut-offs-outages-wildfires-preparedness/
Published Date: Mon, 10 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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Indiana Weighs Hospital Monopoly as Officials Elsewhere Scrutinize Similar Deals

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Samantha Liss
Fri, 14 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — Locals in this city of 58,000 are used to having to wait at railroad crossings for one of the dozens of daily cargo trains to pass through.

But a proposed merger between the two hospitals on either side of the city could exacerbate the problem in emergencies if the hospitals shut down some services, such as trauma care, at one site, which the proposal cites as a possibility. Tom High, fire chief of a nearby township, said some first responders would be forced to transport critical farther, risking longer delays, if they become what locals call “railroaded” by a passing train.

That's just one of the fears in this community as Indiana review whether to allow Union Hospital, licensed as a 341-bed facility, to purchase the county's only other acute care hospital, the 278-bed Terre Haute Regional Hospital. The proposed deal also raises concerns about reduced tax revenue, worsening care, and higher prices.

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Within the next few months, the Indiana Department of must find “clear evidence” that the proposed merger would improve health outcomes, access, and the quality of care. Those must “outweigh any potential disadvantages.”

As the nation's health care industry has become more concentrated amid a steady clip of mergers in recent decades, it's common for one large system to dominate a market. In this case, the deal would be Indiana's first merger under the COPA law, short for Certificate of Public Advantage, that the state enacted in 2021. Such laws allow deals that the Federal Trade Commission otherwise considers illegal because they reduce competition and often create monopolies. To mitigate the negative effects of a monopoly, the merged hospitals typically agree to conditions imposed by state regulators.

Union Hospital leaders said it's time to move “beyond competition” for the sake of the region, which has struggled to keep jobs and raise expectancy rates. Hospital spokesperson Neil Garrison said the merger would ultimately improve care, increase access, and cut costs. Leaders of Regional Hospital, which is owned by for-profit chain HCA Healthcare, did not respond to questions about the proposal.

One unusual implication arises, though: If the merger is approved, the surrounding county would lose tax revenue from one of its larger businesses. Union Hospital, which as a nonprofit is exempt from paying taxes, would be acquiring tax-paying Terre Haute Regional, which paid roughly $508,000 in county taxes for 2023, said Vigo County Auditor Jim Bramble. That's the equivalent of the starting salaries of about nine sheriff's deputies, per the county's $83 million 2024 budget.

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Garrison said the hospital system is aware of the tax implications for the county and is “exploring opportunities” to address it.

Meanwhile, Roland Kohr, formerly a pathologist at Regional and a county coroner, frets about erasing competition that forced the hospitals to add services or match the other. “The push to introduce new technologies, to recruit more physicians, that may not happen,” he said.

The FTC has urged states to avoid COPAs, pointing to research that found they “have resulted in significant price increases and contributed to declines in quality of care.” The fallout of similar mergers has triggered federal sanctions in North Carolina and pushback from locals and legislators in Tennessee.

“A merged hospital system that faces little remaining competition after the merger usually has little incentive to follow through with its promises because patients have no other choice,” wrote Chris Garmon, a University of Missouri-Kansas City economist who has studied COPA mergers, in a warning to Indiana health officials about the proposed merger.

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Indiana already has among the highest hospital prices in the country, according to a study by the Rand Corp. research organization. The Indiana Legislature spent the past year to rein in prices. Gloria Sachdev, CEO of Indianapolis-based Employers' Forum of Indiana, which pushed for those pricing limits on behalf of frustrated business leaders, is worried a Union-Regional merger would undo those gains and raise prices further.

Indiana's COPA restricts how much the hospital could increase charges, Garrison said.

Elsewhere, the largest COPA-created hospital system in the country, Ballad Health, has reported that the time patients spend in its ERs in Virginia and Tennessee before being hospitalized has more than tripled, reaching nearly 11 hours, in the six years since that monopoly of 20 hospitals formed. Still, Tennessee has awarded Ballad top marks even when certain quality metrics, including its ER speed, fall below established benchmarks.

Ballad Health spokesperson Molly Luton said the system's performance has improved since those statistics were gathered.

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Last fall, some Tennesseans unsuccessfully urged a county board to call on the state to better regulate the hospital system. This spring, state lawmakers refused to hear testimony from who drove five hours to Nashville to testify for a bill that sought to limit future COPA mergers in the state — which ultimately didn't make it to a full vote.

Problems have also occurred when a COPA — and its oversight — are removed, leaving the merged hospital system as an “unregulated monopoly.” After North Carolina repealed its COPA in 2015, a subsidiary of HCA Healthcare bought Mission Health, a COPA-created monopoly in Asheville, for $1.5 billion in 2019. The monopoly in Asheville remained but none of the COPA's conditions applied to the new owner.

Last year, government inspectors found “deficiencies” at Mission Health that contributed to four patient deaths and posed an “immediate jeopardy” to patients' health and safety, according to the 384-page federal inspection report. North Carolina Joshua Stein sued HCA's subsidiary last year, alleging the ER was “significantly degraded,” and that the company failed to maintain certain critical services, including oncology care, a violation of a purchase agreement Stein's office negotiated with it because the company acquired a nonprofit.

HCA said it promptly addressed the issues and denied Stein's allegations in its legal response to the ongoing , arguing it has expanded services since its purchase. HCA also argued that the agreement is silent about maintaining the quality of care.

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Back in Indiana, Union Hospital laid the groundwork for its merger more than three years ago when its leaders provided the language for COPA legislation to then-state Sen. Jon Ford, a Republican in Terre Haute, believing he would be “the best champion for this proposal,” according to legislative testimony from Taylor Hollenbeck, an RJL consultant on the merger. Ford, listed on the legislature's site as the bill's co-author, did not respond to requests for comment.

Union CEO Steve Holman testified in the bill's hearings that the county's public health rankings — with an average life expectancy ranking 68th out of 92 counties in the state — should be a “call to action” to do something “big and bold.”

Terre Haute Mayor Brandon Sakbun agrees the merger could help what he called the county's “abysmal” public health statistics. Last year, he was elected the city's youngest mayor at age 27 on a promise to “turn Terre Haute around.” The region's workforce has steadily declined and local leaders have pinned their hopes on a new casino and a manufacturer of battery parts for electric vehicles to reverse this trend.

Sakbun's father is an OB-GYN at Union, but the mayor said that doesn't color his opinion and that he supports the hospital merger despite the loss of the tax base. He believes it will help recruit medical and other professionals to an area that has struggled to attract top talent.

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“Do I believe that this is the one that bucks the research?” Sakbun said. “I truthfully do.”

KFF Health News correspondent Brett Kelman contributed to this article.

——————————
By: Samantha Liss
Title: Indiana Weighs Hospital Monopoly as Officials Elsewhere Scrutinize Similar Deals
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/indiana-copa-hospital-monopoly-scrutiny/
Published Date: Fri, 14 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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California Lawmakers Preserve Aid to Older, Disabled Immigrants

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Vanessa G. Sánchez
Fri, 14 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

California lawmakers on Thursday passed a 2024-25 budget that rejected Gov. Gavin Newsom's proposal to cut in-home supportive services for low-income older, blind, and disabled immigrants lacking legal residency. However, the Democratic governor has not said whether he'll use his line-item veto authority to close the state's $45 billion deficit.

The , controlled by Democrats, passed a $211 general fund spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 by drawing more from the state's rainy-day fund and reducing corporate tax deductions to prevent cuts to and social services.

“Our legislative budget plan achieves those goals with targeted, carefully calibrated investments in safety-net programs that protect our most vulnerable,” said Assembly member Jesse Gabriel, chair of the Assembly's budget committee, following voting in Sacramento.

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Newsom and lawmakers are expected to continue talks.

“What was approved today represents a two-house agreement between the Senate and the Assembly – not an agreement with the governor,” said state Department of Finance spokesperson H.D. Palmer. “We've made good progress, but there's still more work to do.”

Newsom had proposed eliminating the new in-home benefit for qualified immigrants to save nearly $95 million in the next fiscal year, with no plans to bring it back. Lawmakers not only rejected Newsom's cut to the in-home services program; they also refused the governor's proposal to slash $300 million a year from public health agencies. However, they accepted delaying food assistance to low-income older immigrants without legal residency.

The In-Home Supportive Services program helps low-income older, blind, and disabled individuals care in their homes, which helps keep them out of more costly nursing and residential facilities. The program works by paying $16 to $21 an hour to caregivers, many of them members.

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Advocates applauded lawmakers for rejecting the cut. They had urged the governor to adopt the legislature's budget, arguing the state could end up paying more in the long as Medi-Cal recipients tap nursing services. The state has estimated the annual per-person cost of nursing homes is $124,189, compared with the roughly $28,000 average cost for people without legal residency in the in-home services program.

“These individuals would need to essentially go into costly hospital or nursing care,” said Ronald Coleman Baeza, managing policy director at the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network. “It's not only cruel for undocumented immigrants, but it doesn't make sense as a fiscal either.”

The governor has said he's trying to maintain fiscal discipline while preserving Medi-Cal for immigrants. California was the first state to expand eligibility to all qualified immigrants regardless of legal status, phasing it in over several years: children in 2016, adults ages 19-26 in 2020, people 50 and older in 2022, and all remaining adults this year.

“It's a core of I think who we are as a state, and we should be as a nation,” Newsom said in May.

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As part of the Medi-Cal expansion, the state authorized nearly 3,000 older, blind, and disabled immigrants without legal residency to access paramedical services and daily care, including meal preparation, bathing, feeding, and transportation to medical appointments. Advocates estimate 17,000 immigrants qualify.

“Fixing California's deficit means making tough choices, so the Assembly came to these negotiations focused on preserving programs that matter most to Californians,” said Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, a Central Coast Democrat, in an earlier statement.

Lawmakers did agree to Newsom's proposal to delay around $165 a month in food assistance to low-income immigrants without legal residency ages 55 and older. Lawmakers had approved the benefit two years ago, but the governor proposed delaying it by two fiscal years to 2027.

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

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By: Vanessa G. Sánchez
Title: California Lawmakers Preserve Aid to Older, Disabled Immigrants
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/california-lawmakers-aid-immigrants-in-home-services-budget-newsom/
Published Date: Fri, 14 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’: SCOTUS Rejects Abortion Pill Challenge — For Now 

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Thu, 13 Jun 2024 18:50:00 +0000

The Host

Julie Rovner
KFF News


@jrovner


Read Julie's stories.

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Julie Rovner is chief Washington correspondent and host of KFF Health News' weekly health policy news , “What the Health?” A noted expert on health policy issues, Julie is the author of the critically praised reference book “ Politics and Policy A to Z,” now in its third edition.

A unanimous Supreme Court turned back a challenge to the FDA's approval and rules for the pill mifepristone, finding that the anti-abortion doctor group that sued lacked standing to do so. But abortion foes have other ways they intend to curtail availability of the pill, which is commonly used in medication abortions, which now make up nearly two-thirds of abortions in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is proposing regulations that would bar credit agencies from medical debt on individual credit reports. And former , signaling that drug prices remain a potent campaign issue, attempts to take credit for the $35-a-month cap on insulin for Medicare beneficiaries — which was backed and signed into law by Biden.

This 's panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Anna Edney of Bloomberg News, Rachana Pradhan of KFF Health News, and Emmarie Huetteman of KFF Health News.

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Panelists

Anna Edney
Bloomberg


@annaedney


Read Anna's stories.

Emmarie Huetteman
KFF Health News

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@emmarieDC


Read Emmarie's stories.

Rachana Pradhan
KFF Health News


@rachanadpradhan

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Read Rachana's stories.

Among the takeaways from this week's episode:

  • All nine Supreme Court justices on June 13 rejected a challenge to the abortion pill mifepristone, ruling the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue. But that may not be the last word: The decision leaves open the possibility that different plaintiffs — including three states already part of the case — could raise a similar challenge in the future, and that the court could then vote to block access to the pill.
  • As the presidential race heats up, and former President Donald Trump are angling for health care voters. The Biden administration this week proposed eliminating all medical debt from Americans' credit scores, which would expand on the previous, voluntary move by the major credit agencies to erase from credit reports medical bills under $500. Meanwhile, Trump continues to court vaccine skeptics and wrongly claimed credit for Medicare's $35 monthly cap on insulin — enacted under a law backed and signed by Biden.
  • Problems are compounding at the pharmacy counter. Pharmacists and drugmakers are the highest numbers of drug shortages in more than 20 years. And independent pharmacists in particular say they are struggling to keep drugs on the shelves, pointing to a recent Biden administration policy change that reduces costs for seniors — but also cash flow for pharmacies.
  • And the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest branch of Protestantism, voted this week to restrict the use of in vitro fertilization. As evidenced by recent flip-flopping stances on abortion, Republican candidates are feeling pressed to satisfy a wide range of perspectives within even their own party.

Also this week, Rovner interviews KFF president and CEO Drew Altman about KFF's new “Health Policy 101” primer. You can learn more about it here.

Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week that they think you should read, too:

Julie Rovner: HuffPost's “How America's Mental Health Crisis Became This Family's Worst Nightmare,” by Jonathan Cohn.

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Anna Edney: Stat News' “Four Tops Singer's Lawsuit Says He Visited ER for Chest Pain, Ended Up in Straitjacket,” by Tara Bannow.

Rachana Pradhan: The New York Times' “Abortion Groups Say Tech Companies Suppress Posts and Accounts,” by Emily Schmall and Sapna Maheshwari.

Emmarie Huetteman: CBS News' “As FDA Urges Crackdown on Bird Flu in Raw Milk, Some States Say Their Hands Are Tied,” by Alexander Tin.

Also mentioned on this week's podcast:

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Credits

Francis Ying
Audio producer

Emmarie Huetteman
Editor

To hear all our click here.

And subscribe to KFF Health News' “What the Health?” on SpotifyApple PodcastsPocket Casts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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Title: KFF Health News' ‘What the Health?': SCOTUS Rejects Abortion Pill Challenge — For Now 
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/podcast/what-the-health-351-supreme-court-abortion-pill-mifepristone-june-13-2024/
Published Date: Thu, 13 Jun 2024 18:50:00 +0000

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