Nursing homes in crisis

In 2019, Bar Harbor’s only nursing and care facility, Sonogee Rehabilitation and Living Center, closed its doors leaving 53 residents and 58 employees to seek new places to live and work. At that time, recruitment and retention were cited as issues as was the increase to minimum wage, which was set to rise from $11 to $12 an hour that year. Sonogee’s owner, North Country Associates, said at the time of closing that it also had difficulty meeting an adequate daily occupancy and blamed a program at neighboring Mount Desert Island Hospital for syphoning off would-be patients – something a hospital spokesperson denied.

Fast forward just two short years and another of Maine’s bridged islands is facing a long-term care nursing crisis of its own. Last week the Island Nursing Home in Deer Isle announced what seemed—at least to the public and area elected officials—as an abrupt closure of the facility, scheduled to take place in less than two months’ time. A lack of staffing, coupled with a lack of affordable housing, is to blame, says the hospital board. According to reporting from the Maine Monitor, the 70-bed nursing facility has been heavily relying on contracted staff and traveling nurses to provide its care. In 2021, more than 31 percent of its workforce fit into that category, up from 12 percent in 2018.

In addition to the INH news, two other facilities in the state have announced imminent closures this past week, joining a list of more than 10 facilities that have closed in the last 10 years. About 100 Maine nursing home residents—with an average age of 85 years old—will need to relocate in the next few months. Some may be forced to move far from friends and family.

Devastating for the individual communities, the closures also are symptomatic of much larger issues that have been brewing under the surface for years, among them low worker pay and a lack of affordable housing. Add on the pressure of a pandemic and working among the most vulnerable population, and it is not surprising that some institutions have reached a breaking point.

The Mills administration has announced it will release $146 million in state and federal funding to Maine nursing homes, residential care facilities, adult family care homes and hospitals to support workforce recruitment and retention. It may be too little, too late.

It is safe to say that the lack of access to nursing and long-term care, especially for rural areas of the state, has reached a crisis level and it is time to peel back and examine all the layers that are contributing to the problem.

Contract workers, who are meant to solve an immediate staffing problem, are not a long-term solution to address the local employee shortage in healthcare. And, even if you are able to rely on them at least partially, where do they stay? In places such as MDI and Deer Isle housing prices have soared in recent years.

Maine has one of the oldest populations in the country and has experienced an out-migration of its youth. That risks having more people requiring services than those able to provide them. This dynamic has strained a variety of industries across the state, but few as dramatically as this.

Nursing home workers have long been underpaid and upping reimbursement rates for care may be the only practical, if pricey, solution. After all, it is not just about preserving jobs, it is about preserving a community and a person’s right to spend their final days as part of one.

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