True to their much-deserved reputation, Maine Democrats focused like a laser on their relentless pursuit of expanding Maine’s welfare rolls in the final days of the legislative session. What they should have been concentrating on is the crisis facing our state’s nursing homes, many of which are in imminent danger of closing.
We had an opportunity to do something about it, but failed to act. As is too often the case in Augusta, politics got in the way and an opportunity was lost.
Maine nursing homes have been grappling with chronic underfunding issues in recent years, forcing many of them to drastically cut services. Two years ago, one in Washington County had to close its doors for good.
In the most recent state supplemental budget that passed, an anemic effort to help nursing homes was included, giving them about a third of what they need.
Meanwhile, state health officials have warned that more nursing homes are in danger of closing.
In the final hours of the legislative session, the Gov. Paul LePage and Republican leaders in the Legislature identified $5 million in available funding from the tobacco settlement fund. The governor submitted a bill to direct that money toward our seniors, much of it to nursing homes.
Unfortunately, it stalled in the Legislature because Democrat leaders did not recognize or were unwilling to acknowledge the urgency of the situation. They remained intent on using the money for pet projects that, in many cases, are already being funded.
Regardless of our political stripe, I believe we can all agree that taking care of our aging population needs to be one of our top priorities. The money we could spend on our nursing homes to bring them immediate relief would draw in an estimated $8 million in additional matching federal dollars.
Instead of seizing this opportunity to take care of our elderly population, Democrats chose to sit on the sidelines.
Even though the 126th Legislature has adjourned, there is still time for us to take action. I have approached the Senate president and speaker of the House about bringing the Legislature back to address this issue. Unfortunately, neither of them seems interested in taking up the nursing home funding shortage until January 2015.
I am convinced that for some Maine nursing homes, that may be too late.
I remain hopeful that in the coming weeks, legislative leaders can work together to direct this available funding to our nursing homes that should not become the victim of partisan politics.
Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Waldo, is the Maine Senate Republican leader.