NORRIDGEWOCK, Maine — As Governor Janet Mills announces plans for distributing federal COVID-19 relief, a state senator from Norridgewock is calling for more funding for Maine's long-term care facilities and nursing homes.
Sen. Brad Farrin said those facilities should be a top priority, particularly after what they've experienced in the past year.
"It's a prioritization issue," Farrin said, "and I think the legislature should have a seat at the table."
Farrin is pushing for more of the COVID-19 relief funding to be used to increase reimbursement rates for direct care workers.
"The industry has been telling legislators since the minimum wage increase, that their reimbursement rates have not kept up with the minimum wage. And it's the legislators and the governor's responsibility, in my opinion, that we have to bridge that gap," Farrin said.
He said nursing homes need money to hire and retain workers in a competitive job market.
"The nursing homes are saying they can't hire people, and they can't compete with $16 an hour at McDonald's, you know, and these are folks are taking care of our loved ones," he said.
Earlier this month, Governor Mills announced a plan to distribute $1.13 billion in coronavirus relief across the state. Just less than 1 percent of that funding -- $12.5 million -- is slated for the state's nursing facilities.
Farrin said that's not enough.
"Particularly in this most recent spending, I would have thought there'd be a higher priority placed on the nursing homes," he said.
Maine's nursing homes have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Of more than 800 COVID-related deaths in the state, the Department of Health and Human Services has reported approximately 440 of them -- about 55 percent -- were people in nursing homes.
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Rick Erb, president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association, said the pandemic "has had a huge impact on residents and family and staff and it's come at a big price."
Maine Health Care Association is a nonprofit representing 200 Maine nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Erb said that while there was help early in the pandemic, government COVID relief has largely dried up.
"There are state and federal resources that we received, but many of them were earlier in the pandemic and have been depleted," he said.
State officials push back on the notion that there have not been enough funding opportunities and say more funding is coming.
In response to a request for comment on this story, the office of Maine DHHS pointed to the newly-signed budgets, federal relief funding, and special temporary rates for nursing homes experiencing outbreaks.
DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell wrote in an email:
"In terms of funding for nursing homes for reduced occupancy and higher staff costs: There are multiple avenues through which nursing facilities may receive funding: 1) from the Federal government directly, including through PPP, FEMA, and CARES Act Provider Relief Fund; 2) from the Federal government through the State; and 3) from the State directly.
Last month, Governor Mills signed into law a budget that dedicated $17 million, including $6 million from the General Fund, to increase nursing facilities and residential care facility provider payment rates in Fiscal Year 2022, which begins on July 1. This is money that nursing homes can use to hire workers. Senator Farrin – and every Republican in the Legislature – voted against this budget.
The budget proposal the Governor unveiled last week dedicates another $27 million, including $9 million in the General Fund, toward increasing these provider payment rates in Fiscal Year 2023.
That same budget also provides another $40 million, including $10 million in General Fund, in one-time supplemental payments to nursing, and residential care facilities facing lower occupancy due to the pandemic and to combat staffing shortages by funding increased pay, sign-on bonuses, recruitment, and agency staffing.
All of this funding comes on top of the $12.5 million the Administration has newly dedicated to nursing facilities through the Coronavirus Relief Fund (Federal funding that the Administration had discretion over).
This is nearly $100 million in proposed funding.
Additionally, the Administration created a special temporary rate increase for nursing facilities that are experiencing an outbreak and is reimbursing for the cost of testing for nursing facilities. And the Federal government also provided funding directly to nursing homes through the Provider Relief Fund and the Paycheck Protection Program."
Still, as pointed out in his release, Farrin is pushing for widespread relief now, and moreover, for bipartisan debate and discussion.
"When I see 60 percent of the problem and only 2 percent of the resources going there, I think there ought to be a dialogue. There ought to be a conversation," he said.
"Maine is the oldest per capita state in the country. These are our families, friends, loved ones that are in these facilities and they are not getting the care that they need," he said.