VP Harris celebrates new staffing rules for nursing homes during La Crosse visit

Biden administration leaders say minimum staffing levels, increased pay for home care providers will lead to better patient care

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to certified nursing assistant Lisa Briggs during a roundtable Monday, April 22, 2024, at the Hmoob Cultural & Community Agency in La Crosse, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Vice President Kamala Harris met with certified nurse aides and labor union leaders in La Crosse to celebrate new federal rules for long-term care facilities and at-home services.

Harris hosted a roundtable at the Hmoob Cultural & Community Agency on Monday, speaking with state and national members of labor union SEIU and the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The federal agency finalized a rule on Monday that establishes minimum staffing levels for nurses and nurse aides at facilities that receive federal funding. It also requires long-term care facilities to have a registered nurse onsite at all times.

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At the event, Harris said roughly 75 percent of federally-funded nursing homes are understaffed, and that has an impact on patient care.

“It means that there may be no one available to help them out of bed,” she said. “It means there may be no one available when they fall. It means that they will receive less medical attention because the care workers in that facility are going from room to room, resident to resident.”

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a roundtable event Monday, April 22, 2024, at the Hmoob Cultural & Community Agency in La Crosse, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

CMS also finalized a rule requiring at least 80 percent of Medicaid payments for home care services go to workers’ wages. Harris said the change will help raise wages for direct care workers, which will lead to less staff turnover and higher quality of care.

“This is about dignity,” she said. “It’s about the dignity that we as a society owe to those in particular who care for the least of these.”

CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure said at the event that the new requirements were based on feedback from thousands of clinicians, health care workers and patients. She said staff reported feeling pressure to leave for service industry jobs, “where they could earn higher wages without the emotional and physical demands of nursing home care.”

Lisa Briggs, a Milwaukee CNA who has worked for 28 years, was one of the SEIU members who spoke with Harris on Monday. She said there have been times when her facility was so understaffed that there were only two workers on a floor. 

Certified nursing assistant Lisa Briggs, right, speaks during Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit Monday, April 22, 2024, at the Hmoob Cultural & Community Agency in La Crosse, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Briggs said it’s frustrating for both the workers and the residents of long-term care facilities. She remembered one person she cared for who loved to walk. 

“When we were short staffed, we couldn’t walk her, so then she’d be real frustrated,” she said. “I’d be like, ‘I’m gonna do it tomorrow. I promise, I promise’. And you know, sometimes it happened, sometimes it didn’t.”

Aryanna Arnone-White, a CNA from Madison, told Harris that being short staffed takes a toll on care workers, and it makes it hard to provide the personal interactions patients need. 

“You’re there through their happy times, their bad times, when no one comes to visit them on holidays or birthdays,” White said. “You are the one that is there to be able to share those moments with them.”

Wisconsin GOP voice skepticism about new requirements

Nursing home industry leaders in Wisconsin have previously voiced concerns about their ability to meet new standards after what they describe as years of workforce challenges. Kathryn Brod, CEO of Leading Age Wisconsin, said in February that her organization doesn’t “believe that one size fits all staffing ratios guarantee quality.”

Wisconsin Republicans echoed some of this skepticism about the new requirements during a call with reporters on Monday. 

Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson told reporters that enforcing the rule would mean more federal spending at a time when the federal deficit is more than $1 trillion.

“From my standpoint, I’m not a fan of the federal government. I think it causes or exacerbates more problems than it solves,” said Johnson, adding that he would support state and local solutions to the issue instead.

During her visit to La Crosse, Harris also hosted a campaign event to highlight her and President Joe Biden’s commitment to protecting reproductive health care. 

It’s the second time Harris has visited the state to talk about abortion access this year. She kicked off the White House’s official Fight for Reproductive Freedom tour during an event in Waukesha County in January. The vice president also visited Madison in March to announce a new federal apprenticeship program.

Harris told supporters at the La Crosse Center that after speaking about the issue across the country, she believes “the majority of us as Americans do have empathy.”

“What I’m finding is that more and more people will openly agree that one does not have to abandon their faith or deeply held beliefs to agree the government should not be telling her what to do with her body,” she said.