Senior living industry association Argentum is pivoting to focus more on public policy, particularly at the federal level, in light of the Covid-19 crisis.
Over about the last 18 months, the organization doubled its government relations staff to six people and increased its expenditures related to public policy, Argentum President and CEO James Balda told Senior Housing News.
“Roughly about a third of our expenditures were focused on public policy — throughout Covid, that’s gone to about two-thirds, and I’d expect to see that continue to increase over the next year or two,” Balda said. “ … We’re really putting more of our resources into government relations, advocacy and public policy than ever before, and we’ll need to continue to do that — but the industry, overall, needs to invest more in this space.”
To drive greater investment in this arena, the association is pushing to grow the Argentum Advocacy Fund. Unlike the organization’s political action committee — Silver PAC — the advocacy fund can raise money from businesses and corporations. The fund is used to pay for legal resources, media relations, policy-based research and analysis, outside consultants and other advocacy needs.
So far in 2021, the fund has raised about $1 million, and Balda anticipates reaching about $1.5 million in the next few months. The ultimate goal is to raise $3 million annually.
LCS and Sunrise Senior Living are among the organizations that have contributed $100,000 or more annually to the fund, and the CEOs of both organizations — as well as Balda — are communicating the same message: The senior living industry historically has been under-resourced and too reactive rather than proactive in advocacy at the federal level, which resulted in slow and paltry support during the pandemic.
“It became very evident to me that we had very little voice when Covid hit 18 months ago, and that ties directly to the history,” LCS CEO Joel Nelson told SHN.
Skilled nursing providers, by contrast, have been more active in public policy and received Covid-19 support “early and often,” Sunrise CEO Jack Callison pointed out.
And that support was not just due to the fact that skilled nursing providers are reimbursed through Medicare and Medicaid, the leaders argue, pointing out that other private-sector industries such as hotels and restaurants also got swifter, more robust aid than senior living.
Compared to senior living, these other industries such as multifamily housing, skilled nursing, and hotels/lodging deploy two- to four-times as many resources for government relations, Balda and Nelson told SHN.
Insofar as the senior living industry has received aid and support, they credited the concerted effort that Argentum and other industry associations such as the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA) made to connect with and educate lawmakers and policymakers.
“We’re happy with the traction that we have received, make no doubt about it,” Callison said. “We’re still a long ways off from where we need to be as an industry.”
Going forward, the industry not only needs more boots on the ground in Washington, D.C., but needs to be armed with data demonstrating the value that providers deliver, Nelson emphasized, noting in particular that senior living residents are less likely to be hospitalized, re-hospitalized or otherwise enter into settings that drive up Medicare spending.
As senior living gains greater attention from D.C. lawmakers, there is also the specter of increased federal regulation. Balda, Callison and Nelson argue that a proactive approach is crucial to ensuring that any regulation is appropriate.
“We support meaningful regulations to help ensure that all providers meet the same standards of safety and quality of care — I don’t think that’s terribly controversial in and of itself,” Callison said. “ … What we’re trying to do is make sure that policymakers are educated as part of the decision-making process.”
For Nelson, there must be the right balance between any government regulation and — when needed — government support.
“I think that’s where we’ve just fallen woefully short,” he said, noting that the industry has sustained billions of dollars in unfunded losses, with pressures continuing to grow due to the delta variant, the mandate on vaccines and other factors.
With regard to the possibility of senior housing associations working at cross-purposes or duplicating efforts — while asking the same people or organizations to contribute money and time — Balda emphasized the associations’ close collaboration during the pandemic.
“I’m really optimistic about our ability to collectively work together as a coalition of associations representing senior living on a go-forward basis,” he said. “We are certainly most closely aligned with ASHA, and are typically in lockstep in terms of what we’re pursuing and what our approach is.”
Furthermore, the need for greater advocacy requires that all industry participants play a concerted role, including vendors and capital providers, Balda, Nelson and Callison said. And the need for action is pressing, given that pandemic-related challenges continue, but also that senior housing and care is poised to become one of the foremost issues facing the country.
Even as the pandemic recedes, workforce issues in particular will be of paramount concern and federal policies will be essential.
“It’s more than just figuring out the minimum wage or livable wage,” Nelson said, naming student debt, child care issues and immigration reform as other public policy areas with a major bearing on the senior living workforce.
“Long-term care in general — for the next 15 or 20 years — is going to be a key public policy issue, and there’s going to be a real debate about how to deliver care to the nation’s seniors,” Balda said. “Our leadership has determined that we as an industry need to be speaking for ourselves in that debate, and making sure we’re pushing for proactive solutions that support the private-pay model.”
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