Schakowsky, Bilirakis Introduce Bill to Keep Nursing Home Residents Connected During Pandemic

January 28, 2021
Press Release

EVANSTON – Today, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, a Senior Chief Deputy Whip and Chair of the Energy and Commerce Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, and Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), Ranking Member of the Energy and Commerce Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, introduced the bipartisan Advancing Connectivity during the Coronavirus to Ensure Support for Seniors (ACCESS) Act. Nursing homes provide essential care to our most vulnerable seniors and adults with disabilities – the population hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. For over 10 months, pandemic safety precautions have severely limited interactions between residents and their family members, friends, and caregivers. This isolation has had significant negative effects on residents’ mental health and wellbeing and has caused much alarm for residents’ families and advocates. Unfortunately, many nursing homes are not technologically equipped for managing resident video calls. The ACCESS Act addresses this issue by providing funds for nursing homes to purchase the technology needed to help residents stay connected through video with both health professionals and loved ones outside the facility. The Senate companion bill is set to be introduced shortly by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Bob Casey (D-PA).

“From the start of this pandemic, the physical distancing necessary for saving lives has made it almost impossible for nursing home residents to receive tele-health services or visit with their loved ones. It has left them socially isolated,” said Schakowsky. “We are introducing the bipartisan ACCESS Act to ensure that all nursing home residents are able to use telehealth services and to communicate through video with their families and loved ones. Nursing home residents have suffered the brunt of this pandemic. Providing much needed technology will significantly help them fight the challenges of social isolation.”

“We’ve seen throughout the pandemic that telehealth services have provided a critical lifeline for millions of Americans, especially seniors, allowing them to receive quality medical and behavioral healthcare from the comfort and safety of their homes.  This critical legislation builds upon those lessons learned by ensuring that seniors in long-term care facilities have access to and are able to enjoy the benefits of telemedicine,” said Bilirakis.    

Specifically, the ACCESS Act would:

  • Authorize an emergency supplemental appropriation of $50 million for the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Telehealth Resource Center to assist nursing facilities receiving funding through Medicare or Medicaid in expanding their use of telehealth services;
  • Establish a grant program authorizing HHS to award funds to nursing facilities to support virtual visits for residents during the pandemic while there are still COVID-19 related health risks for in-person visits; and
  • Require the Secretary of HHS to provide guidance to nursing homes receiving these grants on additional steps nursing facilities shall take to ensure access to virtual visitation technology and services in nursing facilities.

Endorsing organizations of the ACCESS Act include AARP, The Long-Term Care Community Coalition, Justice in Aging, Center for Medicare Advocacy, The National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, and the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform (CANHR).

“During this frightening time, the health, safety, and well-being of people living in nursing homes, assisted living, and other residential care facilities is paramount, which is why it is so critical that they have the ability to virtually visit and communicate with their loved ones, including but not limited to if in-person visitation is restricted. Expanding access to telehealth in nursing homes can also help ensure more efficient and effective access to care,” said Bill Sweeney, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs for AARP.

“The direct harm caused by the coronavirus is well-documented,” states Richard Mollot of The Long Term Care Community Coalition, “but, until now, not enough attention has been paid to the harm inflicted on residents during months of loneliness and isolation. This bill will make a real, positive difference in the lives of nursing home residents across the country.”

“Imagine being isolated from your family and friends for months on end,” noted Eric Carlson, a Directing Attorney at Justice in Aging.  “The ACCESS Act will allow residents once again to see and talk to the ones they love.”

“Given the ongoing and harmful separation of nursing home residents from their families during the pandemic, we must at the very least ensure regular and meaningful virtual visitation,” Robyn Grant, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy at The National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care. “Sadly, this is currently not the case in far too many nursing homes. The National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care supports the ACCESS Act because it will provide funds to help make such visits a reality, rather than an empty promise, and assist in reducing the pain of isolation until nursing home doors open again.”

“As nursing homes have closed to visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic, the isolation of residents from their families and friends has been emotionally devastating and increased morbidity and mortality from other causes,” said Pat McGinnis, Executive Director of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform (CANHR). Virtual visitation can be a lifeline for residents cut off from family comfort and support.”