Special Session on Nursing Homes? Maine Lawmakers at Odds

May 8, 2014

First, Gov. Paul LePage threatened to bring the Maine Legislature back into an emergency session. Now minority Republicans are urging Democrats to reconvene over nursing homes. Specifically, Republicans want to reconsider an 11th-hour bill from the governor that would provide $5 million to nursing homes from a tobacco settlement fund.

In the final hours of the legislative session, lawmakers attempted to reach a compromise on a bill to provide immediate funding for several struggling nursing homes. After hours of negotiations, Gov. Paul LePage sent a message to lawmakers that he would veto any amended version of his bill that altered his plan for funding the nursing homes by taking money from the Fund for a Healthy Maine that pays for smoking cessation and substance abuse programs. 

Now, Republican leaders say they believe a compromise could be in reach if majority Democrats would agree to convene an emergency session of the Legislature. Ken Fredette is the House Republican leader.

"I think the governor certainly would be open to look at the final package that we would put together, and I think we can do that in concert with Democrat and Republican leadership and working with the governor's office," Fredette says.

That's a significant evolution from the position held by Republican Senate leaders who just last week blamed Democrats for putting politics over Maine's elderly residents. 

The message is consistent with the philosophical divide between the two parties. Democrats say Republicans who oppose Medicaid expansion and maintenance of welfare programs are waging a war on the poor. Republicans argue that Democrats want to provide welfare benefits to able-bodied Mainers who should be out working and that the benefits come at the expense of funding for programs designed to help the elderly and "truly needy." 

Fredette says the nursing home issue transcends partisan politics and that he's ready to return to Augusta as soon as possible.

"The sooner, the better," Fredette says. "And quite frankly, this money is available to be used for the nursing homes. And I think, quite frankly, that leadership working with our Appropriations Committee could get this thing spun up fairly quickly."

"We tried to continue working with our Republican colleagues, but once again Gov. LePage got in the way of progress for nursing homes," says Maine Senate President Justin Alfond.

Alfond says nothing has changed since last week. And he says that, contrary to what Fredette suggests, the governor's 11th-hour bill was an attempt by the administration to cash in politically on the nursing home issue after he vetoed a bill that would have helped the facilities.

In fact, as a result of both parties overriding LePage's veto of that bill and the budget bill - which also provides more money for nursing homes - Alfond says the Legislature has responded to nursing home funding shortages in a significant way.

"As of July 1st, we will be putting $12 million into our nursing homes, and then to continue our commitment to nursing homes we have $26 million already committed in the next biennial budget," Alfond says. "So $38 million of state and federal monies will be brought into our state to help our nursing homes and the rates that they are getting in order to make them more viable."

Some lawmakers say they expect a couple of struggling nursing homes to announce they may have to close their doors in the next few weeks if the Legislature doesn't act. Although some of the financially troubled nursing homes are located in rural areas, Rick Erb of the Maine Health Care Association, says it would be a mistake to simply define the problem in rural-urban terms.

"Overall, you see a higher MaineCare population in the rural nursing homes than you do in the more urban areas," Erb says. "But there are urban nursing homes that do have a high MaineCare percentage, so you don't want to over generalize the rural-urban thing because there are exceptions in both cases."

Republicans insist that the deteriorating finances of some nursing homes is so critical that they may not be able to wait until additional funds become available on July 1.