The entrance to the Maine Veterans Home in Caribou. The facilities in Caribou and Machias were saved from impending closure by recent legislative action. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

Maine lawmakers recently voted unanimously to allocate $3.5 million to two Maine veterans homes that were in danger of closing. Gov. Janet Mills quickly signed the measure into law.

Supporting the funding to keep the homes in Machias and Caribou open for at least a year was, in essence, the easy part.

The more difficult work will be to find ways to ensure the financial viability of Maine’s six veterans homes well into the future. This is a particular challenge for the homes in rural areas, where the number of residents who are veterans is declining.

Maine’s veterans homes, which provide long-term and skilled nursing care to veterans and qualified family members, are run by a nonprofit and funded through a mix of federal funds (from the Veterans Administration, Medicare and Medicaid) and private money through insurance and donations. They are not run by the Veterans Administration or state government.

Maine Veterans’ Homes, the nonprofit organization that runs Maine’s six homes for veterans, had announced unexpectedly in February that it planned to close the homes in Caribou and Machias.

The organization, which is overseen by a board of trustees, all of whom served in the military, cited a declining number of residents at the two homes, which contributed significant operational losses. The board also said it was increasingly difficult to hire staff for the homes in Aroostook and Washington counties, a problem that was worsened by the pandemic.

The Machias and Caribou homes have lost a combined total of $2 million annually for the last several years, according to the nonprofit’s spokesperson Christine Henson. The facilities are on track to lose a combined $3 million this year and their operations are subsidized by the other homes in the system. Maine Veterans Home total revenue exceeds its expenses, according to recent tax returns.

The homes in Machias and Caribou were operating below their residential capacity.

Lawmakers and others assessing the future of the homes can do little to change this demographic reality in the short term. So, their challenge will be to find new ways for the homes, especially those in rural areas, to adapt to continue to serve local veterans in a cost-effective manner.

The legislation to fund the homes requires Maine Veterans Homes to obtain legislative approval to close — or to establish — any of its facilities. Although we see this as unneeded legislative micromanagement, it should keep pressure on lawmakers to realistically examine the financial viability of all of the homes.

The legislation also creates a committee to examine and respond to issues that have affected the operation of the homes. In addition, the Mills administration, Maine Veterans’ Homes, the state’s congressional delegation and the Legislature, have pledged to continue working to seek new solutions.

A potential solution that has been mentioned would be to allow the homes to offer new services and to house non-veterans. This, however, could put the homes in competition with other care providers and nursing homes, many of which face similar challenges, in terms of staffing and funding, as the veterans homes.

The situation with Maine’s veterans homes mirrors some of the state’s broader demographic challenges. These include providing services in sparsely populated remote areas and maintaining an adequate workforce in these areas, especially when higher wages often draw them to other areas and jobs. These challenges have hit Maine’s care industry particularly hard in recent years.

As in these other areas, there are no easy answers for Maine’s veterans homes. But, with so many people focusing attention on their financial strain, the chances of innovative solutions have increased significantly since the announced – and thankfully averted – closures.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...