Home healthcare workers face low pay, lack of PPE amid COVID-19 pandemic

Hundreds of thousands of nurses and other home healthcare workers are quietly fighting to suppress the COVID-19 pandemic in the Bay Area and around the country by keeping their vulnerable patients out of hospitals and freeing up resources for emergency staff to treat the infected. 

But as they fight their quiet battle against the coronavirus, these health care providers are running into major challenges, like lack of funds from Medicare and diminishing personal protective equipment they must provide for themselves.

Lora Lemenov visits patients every day in San Francisco and along the Peninsula. 

Most are seniors and have conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and other issues that require near-constant attention. 

They are also at the highest risk of dying from the coronavirus. 

“We have to take care of sick people and I have to make sure my team is well as well,” she said.

By treating her patients at home, she’s freeing up resources at hospitals and reducing the risk for exposure to the virus.  

An estimated 56 million people in the US are now 65 and older as the Baby Boom population ages. They are requiring more healthcare, making the home healthcare one of the fastest-growing industries in the country. 

Jobs for home health and personal care workers are projected to grow 36% over the next decade, that’s compared to the average growth of all occupations which is 5%, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“These workers who provide the personal care services are among the lowest wage earners in the country for taking on the highest risk in caring for these patients in their homes,” said Bill Dombi, president of the National Association of Home Healthcare Workers.

He’s been asking Congress to increase Medicare payments during the pandemic for hazard pay. 

Another issue is that Medicare doesn’t pay home healthcare providers for telehealth visits – even as providers around the country are increasingly turning to phone calls and videoconferencing for appointments.

“You could have a nurse contacting a patient five, six, seven times a week for a month but only going into the home once and that would bring maybe $150 to the provider of the care,” Dombi said.  

Rosaria Rones, another home healthcare nurse, cares for a 101-year-old patient who recently broke his nose.

He would normally go to a hospital for treatment but because of the coronavirus, paramedics recommended he stay at home under her care. 

“A lot of this is put on to the healthcare people that are at home when it should have  been taken up to a higher level of care,” she said. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom said California needs to have a plan to care for vulnerable patients if the state wants to begin moving away from the shelter in place order. 

Home healthcare may be a major part of the endeavor

Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at evan.sernoffsky@foxtv.com and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky