Andrew Muhl, director of advocacy for AARP Louisiana, speaks in favor of a bill to reduce dependency on nursing homes, in the 2017 Legislature. The measure was defeated in that session.

Politics is often a dirty business. Sometimes it’s deadly. State officials for weeks refused to release the names of nursing homes with COVID-19 clusters. On Monday, they capitulated. The news is not good.

The numbers show just how deadly COVID-19 is when the virus enters nursing homes with so many elderly and frail living so close together. In Baton Rouge, nursing home patients made up nearly half of all coronavirus deaths. The numbers for COVID-19 related nursing home fatalities are equally frightening in the New Orleans area. At Forest Manor in St. Tammany Parish, 33 died, Southeast Louisiana Veterans Home in St. John the Baptist Parish, 28 died, Metairie Healthcare in Jefferson Parish, 26 died, and The Wynhoven in Jefferson Parish, 21 lost their lives to the virus. More than half of all coronavirus deaths in Acadiana happened in nursing homes. In some rural areas, it’s even worse. In Pointe Coupee Parish, 85% of COVID-19 deaths were nursing home patients. In Livingston Parish, 60%.

This newspaper submitted multiple public record requests for the names and numbers of nursing home fatality clusters. The state originally claimed the information would take weeks to compile.

“Early on we were reporting cases in nursing homes by name of the individual facility, but they became increasingly difficult as the cases increased,” said Gov. John Bel Edwards during a news conference on Monday.

You can see why the powerful nursing home lobby might want to cover up these numbers. But the Louisiana Department of Health denies the industry asked the state to withhold the information.

The Advocate reported in 2018 the nursing home lobby had pumped more than $6 million into the campaign coffers of politicians in recent years. Edwards and his predecessor, Bobby Jindal, were both beneficiaries.

Nine out of every ten Louisiana nursing home patients surveyed said they’d rather be cared for at home, according to AARP. The group says there is currently a waiting list of more than 17,000 Louisiana Medicaid patients seeking home-based health care. AARP reports nursing homes can be four times as expensive as home-based health care. So why is it so easy to get into a nursing home in the state while home-based health care is scarce? The big money nursing home lobby clearly has more influence with Louisiana politicians than the frail and elderly.

Former Republican state Sen. Conrad Appel of Metairie says the governor could divert money from nursing homes toward home-based health care without legislative approval. Appel sponsored a bill two years ago that would have done just that. But he says the powerful nursing home lobby killed his legislation before it got out of committee.

“We’re exposing seniors to death and sickness and even more than that, fear,” said Appel.

Two years into his first term, AARP accused Edwards of “going back on his word” to pursue more home-based health care.

“Seniors have clearly demonstrated they want to live at home, and the governor needs to remember that he already has a solution in front of him and can keep a campaign promise with the stroke of a pen,” said AARP lobbyist Andrew Muhl in March 2018.

COVID-19 infected 71% of all Louisiana nursing homes killing 987 patients as of Monday. Four in every ten killed from COVID-19 in the state were nursing home residents.

Home-based health care may not work in every case, but it is less expensive than nursing homes for taxpayers. It’s also much safer when it comes to protecting seniors from deadly and highly contagious viruses like COVID-19. And most importantly, seniors would prefer to receive care in their own home. Wouldn’t you?

Big money influences politics and crony capitalism is part of the game in Baton Rouge. But you would think when it comes to our vulnerable seniors, our politicians would put aside their ambition and desire for power and do the right thing and stand up to Louisiana’s powerful nursing home lobby.

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