Sens. Toomey and Casey working together to protect the elderly

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If there is one thing we can all agree on, it's the absolute imperative of respecting and protecting the elderly.

Whatever your political persuasion, right, left or in between, this is a basic human value that should transcend all differences. And it is heartening to see two U.S. Senators set aside their political differences and cooperate to end neglect and abuse of the elderly in nursing homes in Pennsylvania.

In response to the recent PennLive investigation, "Still Failing the Frail," U.S. Sens. Robert P. Casey Jr. and Pat Toomey have decided to work together to address apparent deficiencies in the oversight of nursing homes.

The senators have jointly penned a letter to Seema Verma, administrator of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Washington, D.C., raising questions about a federal program tasked with improving persistently failing nursing homes.

As PennLive reporter Daniel Simmons-Ritchie documented in “Still Failing the Frail," some of the worst nursing homes in Pennsylvania have continued to be plagued with problems - including chronically low staffing, insect infestations, and poor care that has harmed residents — despite ownership changes and promises of tougher oversight by the Wolf administration.

Among those homes, one is a current member of the federal government's “Special Focus Facility" (SFF) program. Nursing homes are selected as SFF if they consistently provide poor care.

A total of 85 of the nation's 15,000 nursing homes have that designation (including four in Pennsylvania). Those homes are supposed to get extra scrutiny and can potentially lose their government funding if they don't improve.

Toomey and Casey's letter raises questions about the effectiveness of that program: many nursing homes have been on the SFF list for years, without any action being taken against them, as the federal dough continues to roll in.

“Neglect and abuse of this nature is altogether unacceptable," Toomey and Casey wrote, “and through a robust system of monitoring, oversight, technical assistance and enforcement, it should be entirely avoidable."

The senators are absolutely right. There is no reason nursing homes that do not properly care for their residents should remain open year after year, transferred from one shoddy owner to the next, treating our elderly as pawns in heartless business schemes that focus only on the bottom line.

In fact, there should be zero tolerance for negligence or abuse in any facility charged with caring for some of the most vulnerable people in our community. And Sens. Toomey and Casey shouldn't rest until that is indeed the case, and authorities at all levels are held accountable.

To reinforce the seriousness of their interest in the issue, the senators set a deadline of March 27 for the federal agency to respond. That's a clear sign they mean business and will not let this matter rest until they get the information they need.

Once they get their answers, the next step will be for these senators to move with all due haste to end the apparent negligence that threaten the very lives of the people we have a duty to protect.

While solving many of the problems identified in the PennLive's series rests with the Wolf Administration and the General Assembly, Casey and Toomey should be applauded for stepping up to help at the federal level in a show of bipartisan cooperation.

Working together, Senators Casey and Toomey must keep the pressure on those at the federal level who can help strengthen oversight of nursing homes, as they have vowed to do in their letter.

We hope more political leaders will take note of the power of bipartisan cooperation for the common good — as Sens. Toomey and Casey are now modeling. And it's not a bad idea for approving constituents to send a strong signal of their gratitude.

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