DEER ISLE — The Island Nursing Home (INH), which closed last October amid a severe staffing shortage, quickened by the COVID-19 pandemic, will not be reopening in its former function, which had offered residential and nursing care to older adults.
“It became for us an issue of safety,” said Ronda Dodge, who is president of the seven-member board of directors that runs the nonprofit organization. “We have made the unanimous decision that we will not be reopening the nursing home. We didn’t give up on the idea of a nursing home until May when we got the final report from Covenant.”
The board had hired Covenant Health System to study the feasibility of reopening independently or partnering with another organization such as Northern Light or North Country Associates. However, neither of those entities was in a position to do so, according to the report. In fact, North Country is experiencing a similar staffing shortage and is closing two of its facilities.
INH was licensed for 70 beds. That number by federal law requires 110 full- and part-time staff, Dodge said. “We’re required to have certain types of staff by regulation. We closed because in order to staff a 32/38-bed facility, it requires 110 full- and part-time staff.” The facility had 32 residential care and 38 skilled nursing care beds.
Maintaining the required staffing level was not a possibility for INH, which due to its rural location and a shortage of housing options on Deer Isle-Stonington had been using travel nurses, often called contract staff, since 2015. Many of those travel nurses lived in local motels.
“Since 2015 we have had to increasingly use contract staffing,” Dodge said.
Some island residents who mourn the loss of having their elder family members cared for on island have wondered about the feasibility of INH reopening as a smaller facility. But even that isn’t a possibility, Dodge said. “A staff of 79 would be required for 12 residential care beds and five nursing beds.”
What about the possibility that was floated of recruiting nurses from the Philippines?
“We had explored the option with Covenant to hire foreign staffing,” the board president said. “We reached out to a number of facilities who used foreign staff, but with the COVID-19 shutdowns around foreign visas, it made foreign staff not an option.”
INH has an extension to reopen with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, but the extension isn’t long enough to hold out for foreign worker visas to surface.
The bright spot is that the facility is in excellent condition, according to the board, which is committed to the reuse of the building and grounds for seniors.
Community members had suggested using the property for senior housing.
“We are currently looking at a number of options to see what we need to do,” Dodge said. That might look like a facility that is “a step up from Deer Run [Apartments] but a step down from a nursing facility. There may be a possibility of converting our bed rights to some other program, which we’re exploring.”
Dodge said the board is committed to exploring every possible use of the 18.5-acre property for senior citizens.
“Our nonprofit is senior-focused,” Dodge said. “That’s what the money was raised for initially,” she said, referring to the fundraising campaign that was held to help build the facility.
“If that’s not possible, we’ll explore other options, but we haven’t vetted all the other options first,” Dodge said. “We feel it’s our duty to explore that first. Unfortunately, because of staffing and housing more is getting ruled out than in.”
The nursing home takes up just a small part of its 18.5-acre parcel, but the current zoning won’t allow any more buildings on the land.
“We had talked to the town about building on the property, but it’s not an option because of the way we’re zoned,” Dodge said. “They are not willing to take it up until their Comprehensive Plan is complete. When we closed, we were told it would take two to three years.”
“We’re exploring so many different things,” Dodge said. “So far everything we’ve looked at is not going to work.”
INH is hardly alone in its staffing crisis.
Brenda Gallant, who is executive director of the Maine Long-term Care Ombudsman program, said, “The staffing challenges continue, really in all settings, homecare as well as nursing homes, so it’s across the continuum of long-term care services. I know that in January of this year, of 2022, the Maine Healthcare Association did a survey of their members. Eighty-five percent of them reported significant staffing shortages.”
The Maine Monitor has reported Maine is projected to have a total nurse shortfall of 2,700 by 2025.