Sen. Casey offers prescription for change

By Asten Smith, Sunbury Daily Item

— LEWISBURG -- U.S. Sen. Robert Casey Jr. spoke at Evangelical Community Hospital on Monday about his health initiatives, focusing mainly on his efforts to improve Pennsylvania's direct care workforce.

Sen. Casey, a Democrat, spoke to an audience of nursing assistants, home health aides, personal care aides and others who have spent numerous years in the field of direct care. His concern, he said, is with the baby boomer generation aging at a time when staffing in nursing and personal care homes is on the decline. As a result, there may not be adequate health care for the next generation of elderly residents.

Direct care workers are poorly paid and underappreciated, he added, and the issues that surround direct care will affect all of the population eventually.

Sen. Casey listened to the issues, concerns and desperate situations that were raised by direct care workers, many who have worked in their profession for more than 30 years.

Among them were people who are providing health care, but said they have no health benefits for themselves or their families. Other issues included staffing shortages, poor pay, lack of training, high turnover rates, and impossible work loads.

Sarah Stone traveled from Bedford County to attend the conference. She has been working in the direct care profession for 11 years. She recalled a time when the facility she worked at was so understaffed that she couldn't afford to spend more than five minutes with any of the residents under her care.

One resident, who was in his last hours, didn't want to die alone, but passed away during her lunch break. She said situations like that make it difficult to work in the field.
Many direct care workers echoed being in similar situations and added that so many of them are overworked, burned out and have suffered injuries because they have pushed their bodies to their physical limits during mandatory overtime or without enough assistance.

Sen. Casey said there needs to be support for legislation that makes certain staffing requirements mandatory.

The issues that surround the direct care health profession need to be addressed by a series of strategies that result in solutions, he said. His first suggestion was to have hearings addressing such concerns in the direct care field at the state and federal level. He also said, beyond providing better wages and benefits to direct care providers, changing the public's perception of the occupation and highlighting its importance could be a solution as well to bring about positive change.

"I think, in the end, one of the real solutions to this is to change how we think about these workers," he said. "Their status has to be elevated. Their importance has to be enhanced, so that we work to recruit direct care workers just as we recruit direct care workers to go into the armed services, just as we recruit doctors and other professions. It is a profession and it should be treated as a profession.

"It's going to require legislative change, regulatory change, but even beyond what happens in Washington or in Harrisburg; we've got to change our attitude about how we think about these direct care workers."

The senator closed by thanking the direct care workers gathered and said he saw personally how their work improves the quality of life when his father died. As a public official and as a son, he extended his gratitude and appreciation to direct car workers.

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