By Gaylene Miller, AARP WV State Director
Tragically, nearly 700 residents and staff of West Virginia nursing homes, assisted living and other long-term care facilities have died of COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic. As the death toll rises, the West Virginia Legislature is fast tracking legislation to shield the industry from COVID-19 related lawsuits.
Senate Bill 277, the COVID-19 Jobs Protection Act, gives nursing home, assisted living and other long-term care companies blanket immunity from liability related to COVID-19 — a move that strips away the rights of residents and their families. The West Virginia Senate approved the legislation Feb. 19 on an overwhelming two-thirds majority vote.
Across the nation, the nursing home death toll is more than 170,000 and rising, representing about 40 percent of all COVID-19 deaths to dates. While West Virginia’s state-level and industry response to this pandemic has exceeded that of the rest of the country, fewer eyes are observing what is happening in facilities.
State and federal officials have suspended or limited most nursing home inspections, along with in-person visits by family members and formal advocates, called Long-Term Care Ombudsmen. The lack of oversight is alarming and requires West Virginia to ensure that, when all else fails, residents and their families still have access to the courts to seek redress.
No family member who has lost a loved one due to neglect or abuse pursues this course of action lightly. Litigation is an option of last resort, but it must remain an option. Long-term care facilities must remain responsible when their wrongdoing threatens the health and lives of their residents and staff.
Senate Bill 277 provides immunity beyond the start of the pandemic, retroactive to January 1, 2020, applying to any cause of action after that date. What this means is that West Virginia families have no opportunity for legal redress on behalf of their loved one in a nursing home or long term care facility for the three month window prior to the announcement of the Mountain State’s first COVID-positive case on March 17, 2020. The legislation also has no sunset or end date, leaving West Virginia families and their loved ones with no legal options moving forward.
Tuesday, the West Virginia House of Delegates Judiciary Committee rejected eight proposed amendments during an hour long discussion of the legislation. On a 19-6 vote, the committee advanced the bill to the full House of Delegates with a recommendation that the legislation pass.
West Virginia lawmakers and leaders must not take away the rights of residents and their families to hold nursing facilities accountable. The West Virginia House of Delegates must step up now to protect our most vulnerable citizens and the people who care for them. Now is not the time to let nursing homes off the hook for abuse, neglect, and even death.