By Jack Cumming

Toward the end of February, George Washington’s birthday to be exact, Argentum hosted a Public Policy Institute supported by its new Advocacy program to target industry-friendly federal oversight and funding of senior living. By opening its Advocates program to all who align with Argentum’s mission, the organization under the leadership of James Balda, is rapidly emerging as the leading advocate for the oldest, frailest, most defenseless Americans.

Helping Residents Thrive

While Argentum membership is largely closed to residents, as a resident I welcome this new advocacy initiative. For those who may not know, Argentum is notable as a senior living trade association that doesn’t make tax exemption its signature focus. Thus, it welcomes both tax-paying businesses and those that pay no taxes. My hope is that with time the organization may extend its reach to embrace all older people, not only those who are infirm, and to include membership options for residents like me.

There is a mythology that tax-exempt businesses serve customers better than do those that pay taxes. That can grate like fingernails on a blackboard for residents who gave their careers in business to improving the lives of customers. There are many owners of senior living enterprises who are true heroes in every sense in which that designation has been used during this pandemic.

Owners As Heroes

Tyson Belanger is such a hero. As the owner of Shady Oaks Assisted Living in Bristol, CT, Mr. Belanger took note with mounting concern of the early COVID-19 outbreak in the Life Care Center in Kirkland, WA. He carried on his shoulders the responsibility for the welfare of the residents in his care, and he didn’t want to take any chance that someone might inadvertently bring contagion to the community.

As an owner, without the kind of multi-facility corporate governance of many nonprofits and some for-profits, he was able to act quickly. He put his own money on the line. He asked staff to volunteer to live onsite, in a hygienic bubble, for the protection of residents. He brought in trailers to house staff, and he paid CNAs $15,000 a month and nurses more to accept quarantine within the bubble right alongside the residents. He paid those costs out of his own pocket. That’s the kind of quick action and heroism that many owners brought to the defense of those for whom they were responsible. It worked. He kept COVID-19 at bay while others were afflicted.

The story of Mr. Belanger’s heroism, unfortunately, takes a turn toward injustice after he applied to recoup some of his expenditure through the Provider Relief Fund. To be sure that he crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s required by the government, he hired outside professional expertise to guide the application process. Shockingly, on the very day that he learned that he was getting vaccines, he received an abrupt declination of his application with no explanation given. The ways of government can be mysterious and arbitrary and often they are not appealable.

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Righting the Balance

For the public, including residents, potential future residents, and their loved ones, this kind of story deters exemplary action by seeming to penalize the most conscientious provider-owners. There’s not much that Congress can do about that. Congress enacts the laws and authorizes the expenditures, but it is up to the departments of government to dispense the funds and to maintain a level playing field to ensure that fair practices are followed.

Government policy is to favor aging in place, meaning that those who are aging continue to live in the community. That’s as it should be, and 93.5% of people over 65 live in the community. But Assisted Living is the backstop for that 93.5% in the eventuality that the time arrives when they need special assistance. Fortunate are those who then find a home in communities like that which Tyson Belanger owns instead of one with an owner fueled by greed and exploitation of Medicaid largesse. No one wants to end their days in a shared room with a stranger. We need to encourage the responsible assisted living alternative.

Here Are Some Clear Takeaways

  1. Assisted living, which is the heart of Argentum’s membership, provides better care at a lower cost than do skilled nursing and other programs that are heavily funded by the government. Assisted living is largely funded by private pay, which becomes affordable because of the more effective delivery of needed services – many older people who might thrive in assisted living are confined to skilled nursing because of Medicaid and Medicare requirements. Assisted living also provides a more homelike lifestyle which promotes longevity; sharing one’s room with a stranger can be deadly.
  2. The benefits of assisted living have been largely overlooked by federal programs and are generally little understood by members of the public and Congress. Of the funds distributed by the Provider Relief Fund, just 1.7% went to assisted living while 83% went to hospitals, nursing homes, and others. 15% remained unallocated for reasons that you can likely imagine for yourself.
  3. There’s no question that owners – for-profit or nonprofit – need financial relief in light of their care responsibility for the most vulnerable segment of the population. Argentum reports that people 85 and older are 630 times more likely to die from COVID, yet the bulk of the relief expenditure went to hospitals and physicians. While the government funding goes to owners, it’s the residents who benefit when owners like Tyson Belanger are in charge.

Thinking Ahead

There is a need to give representation and a voice to that 93.5% of older people, and their children and grandchildren, who rely on assisted living as a backstop. I’d love to see Argentum move in that direction to create a category of individual membership for people who support its mission. AARP is, of course, the giant in that space, but there is room as well for a focused organization attuned to that specific need. Expanding the membership could also give Argentum grassroots support to help it become an even more respected authority in Congressional policy conversations.

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