Editorial: Preserving communities 

In 2019, Bar Harbor’s only nursing and care facility, Sonogee Rehabilitation and Living Center, closed its doors leaving 53 residents and 58 employees to seek new places to live and to work. At that time, recruitment and retention were citied as issues, as was the increase to minimum wage, which was set to rise from $11 to $12 an hour that year. Sonogee’s owner, North Country Associates, said it also had difficulty meeting an adequate daily occupancy and blamed a program at neighboring Mount Desert Island Hospital for syphoning off would-be patients – something a hospital spokesperson denied.  

Fast forward two years when another of Maine’s bridged islands is facing a long-term care nursing crisis of its own. Last week, the Island Nursing Home in Deer Isle announced what seemed – at least to the public and area elected officials – an abrupt closure of the facility, scheduled to take place in less than two months. A lack of staffing coupled with a lack of affordable housing are to blame, says the hospital administrator. According to reporting from the Maine Monitor, the 70-bed nursing facility has been largely relying on contracted staff and traveling nurses to provide care. In 2021, more than 31 percent of its workforce fit into that category, up from 12 percent in 2018.  

The INH news comes on the heels of two other facilities in the state that have also recently announced imminent closures. They join a list of more than 10 facilities that have closed in the last 10 years.  

In short, about 100 nursing home residents – with an average age of 85 – around the state will need to relocate in the next few months. Some may be forced to move far from friends and family.  

This isn’t just a problem for Deer Isle or for Mount Desert Island. It is a problem that is indicative of much larger issues that have been brewing for years: worker compensation and a lack of affordable housing. Without workers and affordable places for them to live, many businesses are stymied.   

Following the closure announcements and acknowledging the workforce crisis, the Mills administration announced it would release $146 million in state and federal funding to Maine nursing homes, residential care facilities, adult family care homes and hospitals to support workforce recruitment and retention. “This unprecedented amount of supplemental payments for long-term care facilities will help them cover costs resulting from the pandemic and address longstanding workforce challenges as we continue to pursue our broader plan to expand and strengthen Maine’s health care system,” said Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, in a statement last Wednesday. 

It is safe to say that the lack of access to nursing and long-term care, especially for rural areas of the state, has reached a crisis level. It is time to peel back and examine all the layers that are contributing to the problem.  

Contract workers, who are meant to solve an immediate staffing problem, are not a long-term solution to local employee shortages. Even if you are able to rely on them at least partially, where do they stay? In places like MDI and Deer Isle, housing prices have soared in recent years, compounding the problem.  

Maine is one of the oldest states in the country. As older folks move in, the youth migrate out at almost the same speed, leaving more people who require services than those able to provide them. This dynamic has strained a variety of industries across the state, but few as dramatically as this.  

Nursing home workers have long been underpaid. Addressing this at all levels, including at the federal level where Medicare rates are established, is crucial to stem the flow of workers leaving the field. After all, it is not just about preserving a job, it is about preserving a community.  

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