Gov. Tony Evers to give extra $80 million in federal funding to nursing homes to fight the coronavirus

Gov. Tony Evers and his administration said Tuesday they would give an additional $80 million to Wisconsin nursing homes, as the facilities suffer from staffing shortages during the latest wave of coronavirus cases.

“This has been an incredibly challenging time,” Evers said in a press release issued by the Department of Health Services. “And we can’t express our appreciation enough for the staff at all our skilled nursing facilities. We are truly grateful for their efforts in showing up to work every day and caring for our loved ones, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we will continue to support them in any way we can.”

About $50 million will be used for costs related to the coronavirus pandemic, such as higher overtime or personal protective equipment, that nursing homes incurred between March and August, said DHS spokesperson Jennifer Miller.

The remaining $30 million will be put toward a program to encourage nursing homes to accept new admissions in need of further medical care from hospitals, according to the press release.

That program will offer a payment for every admission a nursing home receives directly from a hospital, in an effort to relieve the strain on Wisconsin hospitals at or near capacity, Miller said. The program is meant to help nursing homes with the cost of providing staff for the new admission.

Many nursing homes have stopped or slowed admissions from hospitals because they do not have enough staff to care for the new residents, said John Sauer, president and CEO of LeadingAge Wisconsin, a statewide association of long-term care providers.

“Our first and foremost obligation is to meet the care and service needs of the people under our care presently, and we cannot be asked to serve more individuals if we don’t have the staffing,” Sauer said in an interview Friday.

A little over a third of nursing homes in Wisconsin reported a shortage of nurses, aides or both to the federal government at the beginning of November, according to the latest data reported to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Staffing shortages have been exacerbated by the sharp rise in coronavirus cases, as nursing home staff who test positive for the virus or are exposed to someone who tests positive cannot go to work while quarantined, Sauer said. 

“Right now, we are not able to serve the hospitals to the extent that is necessary,” Sauer said. “We have a significant number of hospital patients who no longer need to be in the hospital but need post-acute care, and there are very few options open to them because they cannot find a skilled nursing facility that is able to admit.”

State health officials have said they are working to boost the number of workers in hospitals and long-term care.

The state relaxed requirements around the training of nurse aides to speed up the training and hiring process. Authorities are also working to recruit retired health care workers, as well as people who are unemployed or underemployed to fill jobs in long-term care, Sauer said.

Barron County Public Health in northwest Wisconsin issued a call on its Facebook page for help in long-term care facilities.

“We need you! … COVID-19 has caused staffing shortages. Long-term care facilities need your help,” the Facebook post said, followed by a call to “apply today, no degrees or certifications necessary” and the phone numbers for seven long-term care facilities.

The $80 million in CARES Act funding announced Tuesday is on top of about $100 million announced in May for nursing homes and other care facilities.

Sarah Volpenhein is a Report for America corps reporter who focuses on news of value to underserved communities for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at JSOnline.com/RFA.