In this March 10, 2021, file photo, Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, covers his heart while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the Augusta Civic Center. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Not everyone was in favor of a bill to fund closing Caribou and Machias veterans homes, though dozens testified in favor of the legislation Wednesday.

CEO Kelly Kash, board of trustees chair Jim Settele and trustee Don Lagace of Maine Veterans Homes told the Veteran and Legal Affairs Committee they didn’t want to close the homes, but it was necessary after years of financial hardship, little state support and hiring challenges.

LD 2001, sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson, would eliminate any back debt Maine Veterans Homes has for the Caribou and Machias facilities, and require the organization to obtain the Legislature’s approval to close. The Machias and Caribou homes have lost a combined total of $2 million annually for the last several years, the nonprofit’s spokesperson Christine Henson said last week. The facilities are on track to lose a combined $3 million this year.

The organization receives funding much like any other long-term care facility in the state through MaineCare reimbursements, federal funding, private paying customers and charitable donations, according to Christine Kirby, Jackson’s communications director.

Maine Veterans Homes asked the Legislature in 2019 and 2020 for additional funding, she said.

Kash said Wednesday the decision to close the two veterans homes was made last October, even though it seemed many people were blindsided when Maine Veterans Homes announced late last month that the Machias facility would shutter April 15 and the Caribou facility May 1.

By statute, Maine Veterans Homes has to send a closure plan to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, but the requirement in LD2001 for legislative approval to close any of the veterans homes was a problem for Settele.

“This bill as presented today would significantly diminish the board’s ability to serve our residents by taking away our authority and responsibility as trustees,” Settele said. “That authority and responsibility is necessary for effective management of the MVH.”

While the state has an important but limited role in helping these facilities, it has no legal right to control any closures, Maine Veterans Homes lawyer Matt Warner said.

Dozens of people spoke in favor of Jackson’s bill, including Maine Veterans Homes employees.

Nashali Parks, an employee at the Caribou home, said that staffing and hiring has not been an issue that she has seen. She said that during her time at the facility, she has bonded with several veterans, many of whom she said are scared about the facilities closing.

“Many of our residents are Aroostook County born and raised,” said Lucas Cooper, a certified nursing assistant at the Caribou veterans home. “The closest home is in Bangor, about 170 miles away, not to mention the hardships our residents face from not being able to regularly visit with friends and family. The kind of toll this would take on our residents, would be a heavy one to say the least.”

Ashley Johnston, another employee at Caribou, expressed her sadness about the facilities closing and remains committed to the care for veterans who have served the country.

“I just want to say that on behalf of the staff, that those who are left are not going anywhere,” Johnston said. “Other facilities have tried to entice us with sign-on bonuses, but would pass up that money to save and serve our veterans.”

In a March 2 letter from Jeanne Lambrew of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Lambrew acknowledged the challenging nature of the circumstances, but supported efforts to keep these services going.

“We are committed to working with the Senate President, MVH leadership and Board, and the Legislature to determine the appropriate level of funding and a mechanism to provide it that maximizes efficiency and federal funding,” Lambrew said.

The Maine Veterans’ Homes was established by the Maine Legislature in 1977 as a quasi-state non-profit to provide long-term care to veterans and military spouses. Maine Veterans Homes has six facilities in the state. Besides Machias and Caribou, there are homes in Bangor, Augusta, Scarborough and South Paris. The state determined the locations for each of the homes.

Aroostook Republican & News writer Melissa Lizotte contributed to this report.

David grew up in New York, and moved to Maine to study political science at the University of Maine. In his spare time, he loves hiking, playing tennis and skiing.