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Legislature searching for ways to keep two Maine Veterans' Homes open, at least temporarily

The Maine State House is seen at dawn, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
The Maine State House is seen at dawn, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

Maine Veterans' Homes said it has no choice but to close the Machias and Caribou facilities later this spring.

The plans have concerned and confused state lawmakers, Gov. Janet Mills and the entire Maine congressional delegation, not to mention the veterans and their families who will need to find a new place to live.

Now lawmakers say they're searching for a way to keep the homes open, at least for a little while longer.

The all-veteran board of trustees that oversees Maine Veterans' Homes voted back in October to close the Caribou and Machias facilities. Residents and their family members heard the news two weeks ago.

"It was a sucker punch," said Phyllis McIntire, whose 93-year-old mother lives in the Caribou home, before the veterans and legal affairs committee Wednesday afternoon. "None of us had enough notice to be able to prepare and put into action a long-term plan. This was the long-term plan."

The Legislature's veterans and legal affairs committee heard nearly five hours of testimony on Wednesday from lawmakers, veterans, family members with connections to the Caribou and Machias homes and employees who currently work there.

Many testified in support of legislation that its sponsor, Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, said is designed to block the two facilities from closing — and prevent sudden veterans home closures in the future.

Maine Veterans' Homes has said the facilities are losing money, and there aren't enough veterans in the region to keep them viable — or enough staff to keep them functioning.

But Jackson said he has heard from members of his community in Aroostook County who say they can't find a nursing home in the area that will take their aging family members, including veterans.

His bill, LD 2001, would require that Maine Veterans' Homes get legislative approval before closing a facility. The measure would also provide emergency funding to the Caribou and Machias homes to help them stay open.

"This has been very confusing the way this has all come out for me," Jackson said. "Typically in this office people come in and ask for support, ask for services, sometimes, oftentimes, before we get to the crisis that we're at now. This is just the opposite. For whatever reason, I am not able to help in this regard. It wouldn't matter how much money I throw at it. For whatever reason, there seems to be a determination to shut these facilities down."

But Maine Veterans' Homes CEO Kelley Kash said more funding won't solve the organization's problems on a long-term basis.

"We're at the point now where closing is the only option that we see available and possible to preserve the system as a whole," he told the committee.

Both the Caribou and Machias homes struggle daily to staff each shift, Kash said.

But Nashali Parks, a certified nursing assistant at the Caribou home, said she doesn't see it that way.

"I've been there since June, and the only staffing issue that I've seen is the fact that we're not hiring because the place was closing and no one told us until two months before they decided to shut us down and kick [the veterans] out of their homes," she said.

Kash said there is no hiring freeze, but the Caribou and Machias homes have stopped taking new residents since the board began planning for the closures.

Maine Veterans' Homes has said no facility will close until each resident has a new place to go, either at another nearby nursing home or at one of the organization's remaining four facilities around the state. But for families in Caribou, the next closest Maine Veterans' Home is in Bangor, 170 miles away.

John Nadeau, a physician who lives in Caribou, said he struggled to find nursing home beds in northern Maine for his parents. When he managed to secure spots for them at the Caribou veterans home, he was thrilled. Now, he says his family is frantically searching for another place for them.

"[With] the option that we were given, they were probably going down to southern Maine somewhere," Nadeau said. "For them we don't have any family down in southern Maine, so it would be rare for them to get visitation. It would be hard for us to get down there."

There are 640 beds across the six Maine Veterans' Homes, and 384 are occupied, Kash said.

All told, about 80 veterans and their spouses live in either the Caribou or Machias homes today. The Caribou facility has space for 70, while the Machias home can accommodate 30 people.

Kash doesn't support the bill, at one point calling it an "attempt at political posturing" during an election year.

Maine Veterans' Homes is an independent nonprofit that does receive some state funding through MaineCare reimbursements, like other long-term care facilities. The organization has asked the legislature for financial help before, lawmakers said, and at one point, the names of the six Maine Veterans' Homes were included in statute.

A 2016 bill later removed those names.

Yet some lawmakers questioned whether the legislature could require Maine Veterans' Homes to get its approval before closing a facility.

"To me the way the bill reads, it sounds like it would almost be a takeover, whether it would be hostile, or agreed upon or whatever," said Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Washington.

With the legislature having the authority to approve a facility closure, Moore said it seemed as the bill created an arrangement where the state would assume control over Maine Veterans' Homes.

But others appear to be intent on finding a way to either keep the Caribou and Machias homes open — or least buy more time.

"We believe that the board would benefit from additional time and information to help inform a decision of this magnitude," said Maj. Gen. Douglas Farnham, the adjutant general for the Maine National Guard and commissioner of the state's Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management. "We are willing to work closely with the Maine Veterans' Homes leadership and the board and are willing to invest to make these locations viable in the short-run until long-term solutions can be reached."

Maine Veterans' Homes has submitted the closure plans for Caribou and Machias to the state's Department of Health and Human Services. As of Wednesday, the state hadn't approved them.

The veterans and legal affairs committee is expected to take up Jackson's bill during an upcoming work session.