Lawmakers are pleading with Maine Veterans Homes to keep the facilities in Caribou and Machias open.
The nonprofit said Thursday it would close the two homes, citing a decreasing number of veterans, significant financial losses and difficulty hiring workers. Machias is expected to close on April 15 and Caribou on May 1. Neither facility will close until all residents are placed at other facilities that can meet their needs, the organization said.
Caribou has 24 residential care and 33 nursing unit residents with 76 employees. Machias has 23 in residential care and 49 employees.
U.S. Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Angus King requested in a letter to Maine Veterans Homes Thursday that the homes remain open, saying there is strong support and need for them in Maine.
They also cited the bill LD 2001 in the Maine Legislature submitted by Senate President Troy Jackson that would allow the state to help fund the homes with one-time payments to cover the deficits over the last two years. As a nonprofit organization, Maine Veterans Homes is ineligible to receive state funding otherwise, and has relied on donations and outside funding.
Maine Veterans Homes provides long-term and skilled nursing care to veterans and qualified family members at its six facilities in the state. There are homes in Bangor, Augusta and Scarborough and in the more rural areas of Caribou, Machias and South Paris. There are a little more than 100,000 veterans in Maine including those from five wars, constituting 9.6 percent of the state’s adult population. Closing two of the rural facilities could place veterans from those areas farther from their families.
The delegation also calls for the board to consider broadening the eligibility for admissions so that more veterans will qualify to stay in the homes, easing the problem of not having enough residents, and to consider all options for a solution short of closing down the facilities.
But the Maine Veterans Homes board is looking toward the future, including the state’s changing demographics. In its response to a letter from Gov. Janet Mills on Feb. 14, the board said that Maine’s veteran population is declining, and that even with a delayed two-year closure, there will be challenges finding proper staffing with the workforce shortage.
Despite Governor Mills’ earlier letter to the board, former Maine Gov. and current gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage is calling for Mills to step up to save the Machias and Caribou veterans homes.
Community members are processing how this news will affect the veteran communities in Caribou and Machias.
“We were shocked. It came as a huge surprise to us,” said Kris Doody of Cary Medical Center in Caribou. “We have had a great relationship with Maine Veteran Homes for 40 years, and we were not consulted prior to the board making the decision. We are working with the state Legislature, the governor’s office, our congressional delegation (including) Susan Collins to try and get an immediate resolution to this issue.”
While the shock can be felt in Caribou, the same can be said for Machias with Maine Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, who has fond memories of going to the Machias home and serving smoked fish to veterans.
Tuell said the facilities give very targeted care, and he has advocated for funding to support them, even drafting bill LD 614 to the Appropriations Committee — separate from Jackson’s recent bill.
“It’s sad, it’s depressing, it’s tragic that the Maine Veterans Home had to come to this point,” Tuell said. “I can understand why they are doing it but that doesn’t make it any easier on the families. In the end, they have to do what’s best for all the veterans that they serve around the state. They didn’t come to this conclusion easily.”
City Manager Penny Thompson of Caribou also expressed her disappointment that MVH had chosen to close without consultation.
“The first person I called was the City Manager of Machias, Will Kitchen,” Thompson said. “We need to stand together to keep this service available for our veterans.”
Chris Gardner, a Washington County commissioner, said he was shocked by Thursday’s announcement and angered by how he had to learn about the closure over social media. He didn’t wish to disparage the people who had done good work at home over the years, but was outraged by the idea that people who left rural Maine to serve in the military would now have to go elsewhere to get services.
“We’ve already sent them overseas to fight in wars,” Gardner said. “They should be able to stay where they are.”
Where the veterans home residents in the two facilities relocate is their decision made with their families, according to Christine Henson of Maine Veterans Homes. There are five residential care and five home health services within a 60-mile radius of Machias, and 10 nursing homes, nine residential care facilities and five home health services that are options for Caribou residents, she said.
Correction a previous version of this story contained the wrong LD number. It is LD 614.