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February 16, 2021
Early View Original Scholarship Aging COVID-19
Walter D. Dawson
Nathan A. Boucher
Robyn I. Stone
Courtney Harold Van Houtven
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Context: The heavy toll of COVID‐19 brings the failings of the long‐term services and supports (LTSS) system in the United States into sharp focus. Although these are not new problems, the pandemic has exacerbated and amplified their impact to a point that they are impossible to ignore. The primary blame for the high rates of COVID‐19 infections and deaths has been assigned to formal LTSS care settings, specifically nursing homes. Yet other systemic problems have been unearthed during this pandemic: the failure to coordinate the US public health system at the federal level and the effects of long‐term disinvestment and neglect of state‐ and local‐level public health programs. Together these failures have contributed to an inability to coordinate with the LTSS system and to act early to protect residents and staff in the LTSS care settings that are hotspots for infection, spread, and serious negative health outcomes.
Methods: We analyze several impacts of the COVID‐19 pandemic on the US LTSS system and policy arrangements. The economic toll on state budgets has been multifaceted, and the pandemic has had a direct impact on Medicaid, the primary funder of LTSS, which in turn has further exacerbated the states’ fiscal problems. Both the inequalities across race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status as well as the increased burden on unpaid caregivers are clear. So too is the need to better integrate LTSS with the health, social care, and public health systems.
Findings: We propose seven near‐term actions that US policymakers could take: implementing a uniform public reporting of COVID‐19 cases in LTSS settings; identifying and supporting unpaid caregivers; bolstering support for the direct care workforce; increasing coordination between public health departments and LTSS agencies and providers; enhancing collaboration and communication across health, LTSS, and public health systems; further reducing the barriers to telehealth in LTSS; and providing incentives to care for our most vulnerable populations. Our analysis also demonstrates that our nation requires comprehensive reform to build the LTSS system we need through comprehensive workforce development, universal coverage through comprehensive financing reform, and the creation of an age‐friendly public health system.
Conclusions: COVID‐19 has exposed the many deficits of the US LTSS system and made clear the interdependence of LTSS with public health. Policymakers have an opportunity to address these failings through a substantive reform of the LTSS system and increased collaboration with public health agencies and leaders. The opportunity for reform is now.
Keywords: long-term care, public health, health policy, COVID-19, social insurance, Medicaid, aging.
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