In this Aug. 19, 2020, photo, a pedestrian walks past the Maplecrest Rehabilitation and Living Center shown in Madison. Credit: Rich Abrahamson / Waterville Morning Sentinel via AP

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Suzanne Bessette of Penobscot is a nurse and has been involved in assessing the quality of nursing home care for 35 years.

In Maine, residents of nursing homes are dying at a rate eight times higher than other Mainers, a disturbing trend seen nationally. Sadly, in the U.S., long-term care facilities account for over 40 percent of all COVID-19 deaths.

Many of these facilities were woefully underprepared for the current pandemic. It is increasingly becoming clear that many nursing homes that experienced high infection rates and deaths from COVID-19 were facilities with histories of inadequate infection procedures, inadequate staffing and a high number of violations.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has stated that there is a connection between poor quality homes and COVID-19 outbreaks, and research supports this conclusion. A report released by the Government Accountability Office in May detailed how, prior to the pandemic, 82 percent of facilities in the United States had been cited for infection control violations, with over half of those having persistent problems. In addition, two recent studies show that facilities with histories of inadequate staffing and poor quality ratings experienced higher numbers of COVID-19 infections in their facilities.

The result? Over 80,000 residents of long-term care facilities have lost their lives, hundreds of staff have died, demoralization of employees is very high and families have been shattered.

Despite these horrific facts, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently unveiled legislation, the Safe to Work Act, that would remove protections for residents and make it almost impossible for nursing home residents, or their families, to hold nursing homes accountable for unsafe practices that lead to harm and death of residents. The legislation would essentially excuse all negligent care that harms residents until 2024, whether that harm was caused by COVID-19 or not. Although the bill contains exceptions, the evidentiary standards are so high that virtually all claims against nursing homes will be barred.

Holding nursing homes liable for negligent care is not just about lawsuits; it is about protecting current and future nursing home residents. When accountability for negligent care is removed, facilities are free to disregard established standards designed to provide nursing home residents quality care. The Safe to Work Act would lead to a radical realignment of established nursing home care practices and allow facilities not to be held accountable for neglect, inappropriate care and potentially even abuse.

Supporters of the legislation frame the issue as protection for nursing home workers. That is false: Immunity actually puts workers at heightened risk of harm. Workers, like residents, are safer when facilities are held accountable for their negligent care. Civil liability provides an incentive for facilities to comply with laws and regulations, making workplaces safe. Further, the Safe to Work Act actually strips nursing home workers of legal protections guaranteed under workplace safety, wage-and-hour and antidiscrimination laws.

It has become clear in the last several months that the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on communities of color. A Yale study finds that Black people are 3.5 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. Because COVID-19 is greatly impacting nursing home residents of color, the Safe to Work Act would likely increase racial disparities in health outcomes in Maine as elsewhere in the nation.

Rather than removing protections for nursing home residents, Congress should work to make homes more accountable, better prepared, and better staffed. Proposed legislation already exists: a bill ( S. 3768) introduced by Sens. Bob Casey, Jr. and Sheldon Whitehouse would provide much-needed funding to enhance protections for nursing homes residents during the pandemic while a bill passed by the House, the HEROES Act ( H.R. 6800), would do the same.

Join me in calling on Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden to oppose the Safe to Work Act. Our loved ones deserve much, much better, don’t they?