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Pennsylvania lawmakers consider suspended COVID-19 regulations for older adults

(The Center Square) – A number of the pandemic-induced regulations impacting Pennsylvania older adults are set to expire at month’s end. Others, however, are expected to temporarily remain in place into the foreseeable future. Screen Shot 2021-09-19 at 17.45.49

In other instances, officials within Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration are asking for some of the regulations put in place at the onset of COVID-19 to become permanent.

The state House Aging and Older Adults Services Committee held a public hearing this week that took a wide-reaching look into the various regulations that were put in place as emergency measures in the earliest days of the pandemic.

Representatives within several state agencies – including the departments of Aging and Human Services – weighed in some of the emergency regulations they believed should stay in place on a temporary or permanent basis.

While uncertainty still looms ahead, state Rep. Gary Day, R-Lehigh, said he wanted to hold the hearing at this point to get a sense of how the agencies are functioning, particularly as a number of the emergency regulations face a Sept. 30 sunset.

“I don’t want to say we’re anywhere near normal,” said Day, who chairs the Aging and Older Adults Services Committee. “I don’t think we are, especially in many of these congregate living situations.”

But from a long-term planning perspective, Day said he believed it was important to gauge how to move forward in a methodical manner.

“As the chaos tapers off, I thought it was important to hold this hearing and communication with the administration … and talk about the issues we need to keep Pennsylvania moving forward,” he said.

Keara Klinepeter, executive deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said she believed the increased use of technology, from an operational standpoint, should continue after the pandemic has subsided.

“These suspensions have offered flexibility in hiring, ordering of services and provided for the provision of some services through tele-health,” Klinepeter said in her testimony to the committee.

State Rep. Wendi Thomas, R-Northampton, did question whether the long-term migration to a virtual environment would result in unintended consequences.

“One of the regulations that is being requested to permanently suspend is face-to-face interviews for direct care workers as applicants,” Thomas said. “For me, this brings up staffing issues. Seeing people face-to-face is an important part of the interview process. That’s at least a personal opinion.”

Other more tangible regulations, such as restricting visitors at assisted living facilities and other venues with a heavy concentration of older adults, began easing after the heaviest lockdowns lifted.

While the restriction did create challenges, Jamie Buchenauer, deputy secretary of the state’s Office of Long-Term Living, said safety has been – and continues to be – at the heart of the matter.

“By restricting visitation, the goal, obviously, was to not expose the residents to COVID,” Buchenauer said.

Regardless of the fate of each specific emergency regulation this fall, Day said he hopes the measures taken in the past year-and-a-half have been instructive and will help the state whether future challenges.

“When we’re operating under a crisis, emergency measures had to be taken,” Day said. “Hopefully we’ve learned something and have made our government oversight and our regulations better.”

A list of the emergency regulations facing suspension has been posted to the state Department of Human Services’ website.