AUGUSTA — After years of underfunding that has forced some of Maine’s nursing homes to slash staff and close their doors, the facilities could get some relief under legislation awaiting Gov. Paul LePage’s signature.
Lawmakers in the Democratic-led Legislature have approved a total of $14 million for the state’s nursing homes over the next three budget years, which would also draw down millions in federal dollars – a much-needed hike for facilities that have been overlooked for nearly a decade, officials say.
“It’s just been a downhill spiral,” said Philip Cyr, the administrator at the Caribou Rehab and Nursing Center in northern Maine. “You just can’t offer quality care on a shoestring budget.”
The more than 100 nursing homes in Maine currently are reimbursed by the state for residents in the Medicaid program based on their expenditures in 2005. They have received only one slight cost-of-living boost since then, said Richard Erb, president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association.
While facilities’ expenses have gone up, the state’s payments have remained flat, he said.
But under a more than $4 million bipartisan bill sent to the Republican governor last week, the state could increase payments to nursing homes in the budget year that starts in July.
Meanwhile, a bill that plugs a $32 million hole in the state budget also includes $5 million for nursing home reimbursements in the budget year that ends June 30, 2016 and $5 million the following year.
LePage hasn’t yet taken action on either of the bills.
The need to re-examine nursing home funding was brought on by the closure of a nursing home in Calais last year.
But many others also are teetering on the brink, forced to cut back on their staff and implement other cost-saving measures like serving less expensive, lower-quality food, Cyr said.
“This may be too little too late,” he said. “What we’re getting is appreciated, but it’s going to take several years of catching up.”
Ensuring that nursing homes stay open is vital in Maine, which has one of the oldest states in the country, lawmakers said. Maine has the nation’s oldest median age, at 43, and officials estimate that one in four residents will be over the age of 65 by 2030.
“What we were able to do this session is just the beginning in a step forward to addressing the aging population,” said Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick, who has been leading an effort to begin tackling Maine’s aging population challenges. He said lawmakers want to focus next session on improving access to home-based care and the state’s long-term care facilities.