STONINGTON — There were few answers but lots of criticism when Island Nursing Home (INH) Board President Ronda Dodge attended the Stonington Select Board’s meeting Monday to discuss the home’s impending closure. INH is an independent nonprofit organization that opened in 1983.
Island Nursing Home Executive Director Matthew Trombley announced Aug. 30 via a letter from the board that the nursing home, which includes assisted living, would be closing Oct. 26 due to lack of staffing.
Trombley did not attend the meeting Monday.
“Part of the problem here is this is the first we’re hearing about it,” said Select Board member John Steed.
State Rep. Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington) said, “We should have known six months ago.”
“We didn’t know two months ago,” Dodge replied, adding that the board found out not long before the public that staffing levels had reached a critical point.
“I’m sorry that the community didn’t know,” she continued. “I don’t disagree that the community should have been part of the plan. But the truth is, we’ve had ads in the paper for 18 months.”
The nursing home, which had 14 residents contract COVID-19 and die last year, has been using traveling nurses or contract staff. But this past year has been especially difficult to find housing for traveling staff. Rentals and seasonal residences that might otherwise be available to rent are occupied by their owners and others who moved to Maine because of the pandemic.
Dodge said landlords are charging rents of $2,000 to $3,000 a month.
“Housing is a problem all over the United States,” said Town Manager Kathleen Billings. “Every community is dealing with it.”
“It still comes down to we are not going to have enough staff, and that makes it dangerous for our patients,” Dodge said. “Three hundred and ninety thousand left this industry from May to December of last year. This means the opportunity to get contract staffing in here is minuscule. I have called everybody I know for a solution. I honestly cannot find a way.”
INH currently has 52 residents, Dodge said. Alternative living arrangements have been found so far for 39 of them.
Select Board member Evelyn Duncan asked about the status of the building after the residents leave.
Dodge said she is working on possibilities for the facility, including just offering residential care for older adults, which doesn’t require a high ratio of nursing staff.
Dodge has also inquired of Northern Light Blue Hill Hospital, which is building a new hospital, if it might need to lease space during construction.
“There’s someone who reached out to us about having a palliative care unit there,” Dodge said. “We’re still working out the details on this. At the same time, we have a task force trying to sort out what we can do going forward.”
There is hope that INH will be a nursing home once again. Dodge said the organization doesn’t intend to surrender any of its licensed beds.
“We’re open to creative ideas on how we could turn it around quickly, even for just a year, while we get our long-term care site back,” Dodge said.
If INH were to reopen, there’s a chance it could recruit nursing staff from the Philippines, which Dodge said has lots of nurses looking for work.
The nursing home would “call back” its residents to move back in if it reopened, she said.
Steed said the nursing home could find employees if it paid more.
“We’re starting them [CNAs] at no experience for $18 an hour,” Dodge said.
“You could hire them if you pay them,” Steed said. “I think there are people on this island who would go to school to become a CNA if they knew they were going to get a job making $35 an hour.”
“I don’t think they’re there,” Dodge said.
The board president also addressed the “disparagement clause” that INH staff were asked to sign.
“It’s not uncommon when you have a retention bonus that you have a disparagement clause,” Dodge said. “There’s nothing in there that prevents anyone from being a whistleblower. We thought it was important because we know we have residents on Facebook. The disparagement clause was specifically to get negativity off Facebook to protect residents, not to protect the nursing home.”
Select Board Chairwoman Donna Brewer, whose mother is at INH, said the negativity on social media and in the newspapers was upsetting for nursing home residents.
“I’m sorry that the community is upset,” Dodge said. “The board’s upset. The staff is upset. Hindsight is 20/20. All I can say is we’ll do better. We’ll pull together a plan and do better.”
Dodge said there are emergency plans for all nursing homes, including INH.
“This community getting notified was not one of them,” she said. “Not every community is this committed to their nursing home.”