HARRISBURG (KDKA) – The coronavirus taught us the importance of ventilators. Many Pennsylvanians find themselves in need of this lifesaving care every day, following an accident or a debilitating diagnosis.
Only on KDKA, we learned a lack of funding just forced many of these vent-dependent patients to find new homes.READ MORE: College Students Across Western Pennsylvania Celebrate Commencement In Person
KDKA Investigator Meghan Schiller confirmed with Pennsylvania’s Department of Aging that four ventilator units in southwestern Pennsylvania just gave their residents 30 days’ notice to find a new place to live. The problem is that the vent beds at other local facilities are full.
“We have a capacity of 20 and all 20 of our beds are filled and we have a waiting list that is growing by the day,” said Jennifer Watson, Transitions Healthcare LLC administrator.
At 51, Benny relies on a ventilator to live, and he’s one of the displaced residents.
“He’s had MS for about 26 years now and it’s progressively gotten worse,” said Michael Hansberry, Benny’s brother.
Benny’s things sit in stacked boxes because he just moved into a new home. His brother Michael manages his care.
“He was just in the hospital and I was calling to see what was happening, what the report was, and they gave me the report and then an hour later they called again and said ‘your brother is OK, but he’s going to be displaced. We’re closing the ventilator unit,’” said Hansberry.
The facility, William Penn, followed the law and provided Benny 30 days to find a new vent bed, sending him a letter saying the “lack of reimbursement and funding” gave it no choice.
“Very stressed, very anxious,” said Hansberry. “I want to do right by my brother to get him into a place that’s going to care for him and meet his needs.”
Benny lived at William Penn in Westmoreland County, one of the four local facilities forced to close their ventilator units. We asked the administrators of that facility what it was like to have to send out those letters.
“A decision is when you have choices, we didn’t have a choice,” said Heather Feelo, William Penn Care Center’s director of operations.
Feelo managed the 10-vent bed unit at William Penn and called the residents her family.
“The decision was made for us by outside sources that control payment and control resources, that control everything that our industry is built on,” said Feelo.READ MORE: 100 Years Of The Double Dip: Kennywood Reopens And Celebrates Milestone For The Jack Rabbit
“It’s not even about profit anymore, it’s about buying the supplies. It’s about just paying the clinicians,” said Watson.
Feelo and Watson blame a lack of funding by medical assistance and Community Healthchoices Providers for these closures. Both say the funding issues mean the facilities need to shut down the most expensive part: the vent unit. For that reason, local families are struggling to find facilities nearby.
“It’s very difficult to be the one to say to the wife ‘it’s not today’ and she’s been calling for 3 months,” said Watson.
Watson runs Transitions Healthcare in Washington County. She could only take three of the 70 displaced people, including Benny.
“That’s really hard to say to families or for hospitals to say, ‘I’m sorry, we’re going to transfer them out of state,’” said Watson.
She explains the cost to care for vent patients is currently three times the Medicade subsidy. Watson tells KDKA the average reimbursement for a patient is about $259 per day and the average ventilator cost is $700. That’s a gap of $441 in coverage for every patient, meaning Watson’s facility needs to absorb a deficit of more than $8,000 every day.
“This is a people issue and it’s certainly time to do the right thing for these patients,” said Rep. Tim O’Neal, R-Washington.
Two legislators, Rep. O’Neal and State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, describe this situation as “dire.” Sen. Bartolotta just re-introduced Senate Bill 108.
“We are all one car accident away from needing such care,” said Sen. Bartolotta.
It passed unanimously in the Pennsylvania Senate Thursday and will now head to the state House.
Rep. Tim O’Neal’s HB 1020 is similar. Both bills propose a compromise to increase the subsidy by $130 for every eligible vent patient.
“We’ve had opportunities to address it in the past, it hasn’t gotten done and now is definitely the time to do it,” said Rep. O’Neal.MORE NEWS: First Week Of Landmark Trial Against Opioid Distributors In West Virginia Comes To An End
If either bill passes before the 30-day window expires, leaders at William Penn tell KDKA they will revoke the letters and reopen its vent floor. Everyone involved tells KDKA they hope these unfortunate closures serve as a reality check for the industry and lawmakers.