PORTLAND – A state ombudsman is stepping in to protect the interests of 34 residents at St. Joseph’s Rehabilitation & Residence who are being discharged from the assisted-living unit to make way for a major renovation project.

The Maine Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program is especially concerned about MaineCare recipients who may have a tough time finding beds at other assisted-living facilities, most of which have long waiting lists.

St. Joseph’s is owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which didn’t respond to questions about the impact of the unit’s closure on MaineCare recipients and concerns that the facility may not accept MaineCare recipients after the renovations.

A regional ombudsman will visit St. Joseph’s on Wednesday, a little more than a week after it announced that it will close its assisted-living unit before renovating the 40-year-old building at 1133 Washington Ave.

St. Joseph’s notified residents and family members on Aug. 19 and 20 by letter and telephone that they have until Oct. 1 to find other accommodations, and that St. Joseph’s staff will help with the search.

“We want to ensure that each resident has a safe and appropriate discharge plan because we know it’s difficult for everyone involved,” said Brenda Gallant, executive director of the ombudsman program.

She said the program typically gets involved whenever a facility’s closure affects a large number of residents.

Gallant said she’s concerned because there are long waiting lists at most assisted-living facilities that accept MaineCare, the state’s form of Medicaid, which covers about 80 percent of assisted-living residents in the state.

Gallant said she’s aware of rumors that St. Joseph’s plans to reopen the renovated assisted-living unit as a private-pay facility that will not accept MaineCare.

“I’m not aware that that’s what’s happening,” she said Tuesday. “I asked (St. Joseph’s administrator) if that was the plan and she said she wasn’t aware of that.”

Long-term care facilities that require private payment can charge much higher fees.

MaineCare reimburses assisted-living facilities at a monthly rate of about $2,500 per resident, which is combined with Social Security benefits to help cover costs. Private-pay facilities charge monthly rates ranging from $3,750 to $6,500 per resident, according to professionals in the field.

Gallant said there’s no law to prevent St. Joseph’s from giving up its MaineCare certification and becoming a private-pay facility, but she hopes it will resume accepting MaineCare recipients in the future.

“There is a great need for this level of care across the state,” Gallant said, noting that 19 of the 20 MaineCare-funded assisted-living facilities she surveyed in the spring had waiting lists.

Across the state, there’s a 92 percent occupancy rate for the 4,232 beds in assisted-living facilities that accept MaineCare, according to the Maine Health Care Association.

There are at least 880 beds in MaineCare-certified assisted-living facilities in Cumberland County, Gallant said. She was unable to say without further research exactly how many are occupied by, or available to, MaineCare recipients.

Gail Winchell, St. Joseph’s administrator, could not say definitively whether the renovated assisted-living unit will accept MaineCare recipients when it reopens in 2014.

“I see absolutely no reason why we wouldn’t,” Winchell said. “I can’t say for certain.”

Winchell said it’s unclear how the unit will be renovated, how rooms will be reconfigured and how many residents will be served, so St. Joseph’s isn’t making promises to anyone.

The unit now has 22 rooms, with two beds in each room. Two rooms share one bathroom.

“The unit is 40 years old and it needs a facelift,” Winchell said, noting that the facility’s board of directors approved the decision to close and renovate the unit.

St. Joseph’s isn’t alone. Forty-one percent of MaineCare-dependent assisted-living facilities need to be renovated or replaced, according to the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine.

Winchell said she’s working with the state Department of Health and Human Services and the ombudsman program to ensure that displaced residents find safe and secure places to live, as required under Maine law.

Some residents may have medical needs that qualify them for vacant beds in St. Joseph’s 121-bed skilled-nursing unit, Winchell said. No renovations are planned for that unit.

Gallant said she asked Winchell whether residents of the assisted-living unit could be accommodated in the skilled-nursing unit during the renovations.

“She said (the renovations) would be too extensive,” Gallant said.

Winchell gave residents a list of eight other assisted-living facilities — without contact information — that might have openings in the near future: 75 State Street, the Portland Center for Assisted Living and Clark’s Terrace at Park Danforth in Portland; Ledgeview Residential Care in Cumberland; Clover Residential Home and Schooner Estates in Auburn; Rumford Community Home; and Farmington Congregate Housing.

“We don’t close until all of our residents are in an appropriate place,” Winchell said. “We’re finding there are enough (MaineCare) beds.”

That hasn’t been the experience for one woman whose loved one is being displaced from St. Joseph’s and is a MaineCare recipient.

The woman asked not to be identified because she fears that her loved one may experience retaliation at St. Joseph’s or have a harder time finding another assisted-living facility.

The woman said she called the four facilities listed in the Portland area and was told that 75 State Street has no available beds, Clark’s Terrace has a two-year waiting list and Ledgeview doesn’t accept MaineCare.

The Portland Center for Assisted Living has some openings, the woman said, but it has had a sudden spike in interest in the wake of St. Joseph’s announcement.

“It’s very overwhelming for me,” the woman said. “They’re putting all these people out, and I know how few MaineCare beds there are. I think they’ve lost all compassion for people and it’s all about money.”

The woman said she has been mostly satisfied with the care her loved one has received at St. Joseph’s, though apparent staffing reductions in recent months led to less attentive care.

Eight employees will be affected by the unit’s closure, Winchell said. St. Joseph’s plans to offer some of them jobs in other departments and help others find positions elsewhere.

Winchell said St. Joseph’s had been operated by Catholic Health East, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that includes Mercy Hospital in Portland.

In May, Catholic Health East merged with Trinity Health of Michigan. Together, they operate in 21 states and hold $19.3 billion in assets, according to Trinity’s website.

Officials of the merged health care group didn’t respond to calls from the Portland Press Herald.

Daniel Barrett, a Portland lawyer who is chairman of St. Joseph’s 10-member board of directors, didn’t respond directly to a request for comment. When Winchell was interviewed, she said Barrett authorized her to speak for him.

Dave Guthro, spokesman for the Catholic diocese, was asked Tuesday to seek comment from church officials on the impact of the unit’s closure on MaineCare recipients and on whether the renovated facility will accept MaineCare recipients.

Guthro didn’t call back with a response.

Gallant said the regional ombudsman will meet with St. Joseph’s residents weekly through the coming months to make sure they find new homes.

“We’re going to look out for people,” she said.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. Aug. 28, 2013, to reflect that Gallant said Winchell told her the renovations would be too extensive to accommodate residents at the facility. It was the reporter’s error.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com

Twitter: @KelleyBouchard