Pennsylvania officials have some explaining to do regarding their handling of COVID-19 in the state’s long-term care facilities and it looks like answers may come from a new lawsuit.

This week, members of the nursing home industry sued the state amid claims officials “illegally withheld more than $150 million that was intended to help long-term care facilities shoulder the financial burden of the coronavirus pandemic.” The case is based on what was to be a projected temporary boost to Medicaid put into place via federal coronavirus relief legislation.

According to the suit, the “new law should have generated an extra $153 million in Medicaid funds for Pennsylvania nursing homes.” The suit alleges long-term care facilities did not receive the funding because the Department of Human Services diverted it to other programs during the pandemic.

“The department’s refusal to distribute the federal funds is particularly egregious here because the funds were only received as a result of assessments paid by the nursing facilities,” the plaintiffs wrote in the lawsuit. “In other words, the department is taking money earned from the contributions of cash-strapped nursing facilities and using the funds derived from those contributions to support other programs instead of nursing facility services.”

State officials say $800 million in stimulus money was diverted to nursing homes. That is good. But the data show more was needed. The $153 million could have helped. A portion of the $1.3 billion in CARES money used to fill budget gaps could have helped, too.

Nearly 60 percent of the state’s deaths have been linked to long-term care facilities. As of Thursday, there have been 1,163 cases at two dozen Valley long-term care facilities and 153 deaths (out of 217 total). There have been four facilities with at least 15 deaths in the region.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the data surrounding nursing homes in the Valley is that the first real outbreak — at the Milton Nursing and Rehabilitation Center — did not occur until August, five months into the pandemic. At that point, everyone knew nursing homes had already sparked outbreaks. We were just lucky here until we weren’t.

There was more than enough time to get the necessary PPE into the hands of those who needed it the most. Many long-term facilities lack a significant cash flow to handle increased prices for safety equipment and supplies when demand skyrockets as it did earlier this year.

Pennsylvania officials knew nursing homes had the potential to be hotspots. The initial surge in the United States was borne out of a nursing home in Washington State. New York, the next hot spot, saw its nursing homes overwhelmed in the spring.

Now we are seeing another surge locally. There are more than 200 combined active cases at two Northumberland County nursing homes. Let’s get them the money, equipment and supplies they need now. Then get the answers to why we are battling over money as soon as possible so this stops happening to one of Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable populations.

NOTE: Opinions expressed in The Daily Item’s editorials are the consensus of the publisher, top newsroom executives and community members of the editorial board. Today’s was written by Managing Editor Bill Bowman.

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