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

Last week’s vote  by the Maine Veterans Homes Board of Trustees prevented the immediate closure of the Caribou and Machias facilities. Though money and state law changes are trying to keep them open, there is no concrete strategy for their future.

Maine Veterans Homes announced on Feb. 24 that it would close its Machias and Caribou locations on April 15 and May 1, respectively, citing millions in operating losses and difficulty obtaining qualified staff.  

Widespread concern and legislative support resulted in a bill from Maine Senate President Troy Jackson to fund the homes for the next two fiscal years and to require legislative approval if MVH wants to close any facility. Gov. Janet Mills signed it into law on March 31 and approved $3.5 million to help the homes stay open. But that money is intended to prevent closures for only a year or more, leading some to wonder if all the efforts are only delaying the inevitable shuttering of the two rural veterans facilities.

Half of the $3.5 million will come from the state’s General Fund and the other half will be matched by federal money. The funds will allow Maine Veterans Homes to cover its system-wide shortfall through fiscal year 2023.

“There will be a veterans home in these locations for years to come,” said Scott Ogden, communications director for Mills’ office, on Wednesday.

 The Department of Health and Human Services is expected to begin distributing the rescue funds this month. Meanwhile, the Mills administration, Maine Veterans Homes, the Maine congressional delegation and the state Legislature will work together to develop a long-term funding solution for the homes, Ogden said.

“The bill was a stopgap,” Jackson said Wednesday. “In that time we would come back with recommendations that would help with the long-term viability of the homes.”

 The legislation requires Maine Veterans Homes to obtain legislative approval to close — or to establish — any of its facilities. It must also pursue both public and private funding, including grants, to ensure the homes’ longevity.

The law also directs that a task force be set up to dig into the issues that have affected all six of the veterans homes. The task force should probe why the Caribou and Machias homes, among the most rurally located, were targeted for closure, Jackson said.

“We need to do a deep dive into the whole structure and find out what we can do to help,” he said.

The funding will solve only part of the problem, MVH Communications Manager Christine Henson said Wednesday.

“One of the biggest problems MVH has faced for years, and continues to be challenged by, is inadequate Medicaid reimbursement significantly below allowed costs,” Henson said. “Coupled with the extreme workforce shortage within the entire health care industry, but most seriously impacting the long-term care sector, many hurdles remain.”

Both the Caribou and Machias facilities had incurred $2 million in annual operating losses for several years, with this year’s deficit projected at $3 million. Officials said they couldn’t continue at that level of shortfall without affecting the quality of care veterans receive at all their locations.

Escalating staffing challenges, as well as a decline in the veteran population, are problems that funding or legislation can’t fix, Maine Veterans Homes officials said in a Feb. 24 statement on its website. The Caribou and Machias sites were not self-sustaining, having depended heavily on financial support from the organization’s larger facilities, they said.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the monetary and staffing situation to a head, and officials deemed closing the two homes was the only way to ensure long-term viability for the others.

“It is important to note that Maine Veterans’ Homes [are among] seven nursing homes in Maine that have closed or proposed to close within the last year,” Henson said.

The issues are the same facing long-term-care facilities elsewhere. MaineCare reimbursement hasn’t kept up with increasing care costs, and staffing is in crisis across the state, according to a report by the Maine Health Care Association.

Still, the nonprofit organization is optimistic about working with the administration over the next year to find more permanent funding sources to enable it to care for veterans in the future, Henson said.

“We’re going to maintain that commitment to our veterans in our nursing homes,” Jackson said. “It’s incumbent on me and my colleagues in the Legislature to see that we’re not put in this position again.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an inaccurate funding amount. The total state funding for the homes is $3.5 million.