Plans to close two veterans' homes spark concerns from Mills, Maine delegation
Maine Veterans' Homes will close its facilities in Caribou and Machias later this spring.
The board of trustees that oversees the independent non-profit said the homes must close because of a declining veteran population and a shortage of qualified health care workers in the region.
But the plans have the governor, the entire Maine congressional delegation and others are asking Maine Veterans Homes to reconsider.
In a statement, Gov. Janet Mills said she's deeply concerned about the planned closures, which she said would displace at least 70 veterans and their family members.
"Closure of the facilities in Machias and Caribou would significantly reduce the footprint of Maine Veterans' Homes, leaving no homes Downeast or north of Bangor," Mills wrote in a Feb. 9 letter to the board of trustees.
She asked the board to reconsider the plan, or at least postpone the upcoming closures for two years.
Kelley Kash, CEO for Maine Veterans' Homes, said the all-veteran board of trustees reconsidered the plans like the governor asked. But more funding or delaying the closures won't resolve underlying workforce problems — which Kash said makes it "nearly impossible" to staff his organization — or a declining veteran population in the region, he said.
Maine Veterans' Homes operates 640 beds for both veterans and spouses across its six facilities, and 384 veterans are receiving treatment today, Kash said.
The Machias facility currently has about 16 veterans but has space for 30 residents, while the 70-bed Caribou home has roughly 35 veterans, according to Kash.
"We have many more beds than we do have veterans," he said. "We're looking at where can we best put our limited resources to do the most good for the most people."
But the facilities can also accept eligible spouses. According to MVH's annual report to the legislature, there were a total of 26 residents — a figure that includes both veterans and spouses — at the 30-bed Machias home and 62 total residents at the 70-bed Caribou facility as of Feb. 28. The report was dated April 1.
Kash said the veteran population is expected to drop by about 60% in Washington County and by 66% in Aroostook County over the next two decades.
"Unfortunately the populations, which are already small, are going to get even smaller in these two more remote locations, so we have to figure out what we can do with that," he said. "Unfortunately, closing those homes, which is heartbreaking for us, is probably the wisest thing to do to preserve the system for the future."
Mills said she's directed her administration to prepare other options for the homes to stay open, if the board wants them.
"This offer still stands," she said Friday in her statement.
All of Maine's federal lawmakers are urging the board to reconsider as well. In a letter to Maine Veterans' Homes, delegation members say news of the planned closures brought them "significant disappointment."
"We request that you accept the governor's offer of assistance and take the time necessary to fully explore all options short of closing the Machias and Caribou MVHs," the letter reads.
They also encouraged the board to consider expanding the pool of veterans who might be eligible to live in these homes.
Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Aroostook, has introduced a bill that would require the board to seek permission from the legislature before opening or closing a veterans home. It would also provide more funding to the Machias and Caribou facilities on an emergency basis.
Maine Veterans' Homes has six facilities that provide long-term care services to former servicemembers in the state and is a separate entity from the federal government's Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Machias home has a target closure date of April 15, while the Caribou facility is expected to close May 1. But the non-profit organization said it won't close the Caribou and Machias homes until every veteran has a new place to live, either at a similar residential or home health facility nearby or another Maine Veterans' Home in the state.
"We will have ample space," Kash said.
As for the 125 employees who work in Caribou and Machias, Maine Veterans' Homes has said it will work with the impacted workers to place them at other health care providers and will provide severance and transition assistance.