California attorney general Xavier Becerra faced a range of questions in his confirmation hearing for the role of Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary — including whether or not he would support more government aid for nursing homes and other health care providers ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican of Maine, asked Becerra whether he supports providing “additional assistance to long-term care facilities, rural hospitals, community health centers and other providers,” especially since a recent $1.9 trillion aid package proposed by the Biden administration “did not include any money for provider relief funds which would help these nursing homes.”
Collins noted that in her state, more than a dozen nursing homes have closed in the past six years, while “many more are struggling to keep open.”
Becerra stressed the importance of providing help and resources to providers that have been hit hard by the pandemic in his response to Collins.
“If I were fortunate enough to be confirmed, it would be a top priority to make sure that we are providing the resources necessary,” he said. “We have seen how so many of these assisted living facilities and nursing homes and other facilities that care for aged and disabled Americans haven’t had the resources. They’re short on workers, and we’ve seen the crisis of COVID hit them hardest.”
Nursing homes have received several rounds of stimulus cash from the Provider Relief Fund established by the CARES Act; the first round of aid targeted to skilled nursing facilities came in May 2020, while the second was announced in July. Another round of direct aid to nursing homes was announced last December as part of an expansion of a broader round of funding for health care providers.
The Biden administration is committed to providing support, whether it is through the Provider Relief Fund or other means, Becerra said.
“We have to provide the help,” he told Collins. “I believe it’s important, and I believe President Biden will be there to provide the support, whether it’s through the Provider Relief Fund or simply by making sure that we are providing resources that are already allocated, to make sure that we are working closely with those facilities that have been hit the hardest.”
Collins was the only senator in the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing to ask about Becerra’s stance on aid to nursing homes, and her question was the only time nursing homes were directly raised in the hearing.
At the start of the year, while already under consideration for the top post at HHS, Becerra announced several steps designed to crack down on nursing home fraud and abuse in California, including the creation of a special Medicaid fraud and elder abuse unit within the state’s Department of Justice. The unit will send teams into nursing homes funded by Medicaid to investigate abuse and neglect claims as part of a surprise inspection program called Operation SAFE.
At the time of that announcement, Becerra’s office specifically cited the fact that 34% of California’s COVID-19 deaths occurred in nursing homes.