HARRISBURG (AP) — Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration on Wednesday said it wants to require nursing homes to boost staffing levels, announcing the first in what officials describe as a series of updates to outdated long-term care regulations that have been in place for more than 20 years.

More than a year after Pennsylvania’s skilled nursing facilities were hit hard by COVID-19, the Wolf administration said the state’s current minimum staffing requirements fall short of what is needed to ensure adequate care for more than 72,000 residents.

Under the proposed regulation, nursing homes would be required to provide at least 4.1 hours of direct care per patient per day, an increase of more than 50 percent.

“We are taking an aggressive approach to ensure that nursing home residents get the care they need and deserve,” Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said at a news conference Wednesday.

She said studies have shown a standard of 4.1 hours daily improves patient care and helps reduce falls, malnutrition, dehydration, infections, bed sores and other maladies.

A union representing nursing home workers applauded the proposal, saying the coronavirus pandemic exposed the state’s existing nursing home regulations as inadequate. More than 13,000 residents of nursing and personal care facilities have died of COVID-19, representing nearly half of the statewide death toll.

“COVID made clear that we need to reform our long-term care system,” said Matthew Yarnell, president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania. “It’s time to focus on solutions that protect residents and those who care for them.”

The Pennsylvania Health Care Association, an industry group, denounced the proposed regulation as out-of-touch, saying it would require the state’s roughly 700 licensed facilities to add 7,000 workers at a time when the industry is already faced with staffing shortages. The group said the regulation would cost operators $300 million a year.

“In our current operating environment, this proposed regulation is an unattainable, unfunded mandate that will cripple an essential component of the long-term care continuum in one of the oldest states, in terms of population, in the entire country,” said Zach Shamberg, the group's president and CEO.

Beam said nearly 20 percent of Pennsylvania nursing homes already offer at least 4.1 hours of direct care, and another 20 percent come close.

The proposed regulations must go through a lengthy review process before they can take effect.

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