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Opinion: Senior care in crisis while legislative fix stalls in St. Paul

There is no other way to put it. Our current system of senior care is crumbling. A recent survey of Minnesota nursing homes and assisted-living facilities found that 40 nursing homes may close if the state takes no action.

Danielle Olson
Danielle Olson
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When the 2022 Minnesota Legislative Session started this February, it felt different. Instead of grappling with a deficit and facing budget cuts, legislators in St. Paul were debating how to manage a historic budget surplus.

It felt positive, as there was ample room to address the issue of increasing wages in the senior care profession and avert a looming staffing crisis in Minnesota.

Katie Lundmark
Katie Lundmark

There was momentum, too. The Minnesota Senate approved substantial funding to increase base wages for aging services workers on a bipartisan basis.

However, the critical legislative fix needed to support our state’s senior care system soon ground to a halt. The end-of-session discussions about the human services bill became bogged down in disagreements and ultimately stalled – leaving Minnesota’s senior care system in jeopardy.

Time is not on our side. As of this year, one million Minnesotans turned 65, and that number is growing. Approximately 70 percent of older adults who turn 65 will require some form of senior care in their lifetime. If we don’t invest in our elderly loved ones and their caregivers, access to long-term care will diminish.

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As leaders in long-term care at Ecumen in Park Rapids and Detroit Lakes, we see this firsthand. We continue to provide the highest quality care, yet we know many more seniors in our communities are in need of our help and support.

The pandemic hit assisted living facilities devastatingly hard, and the recovery has been difficult. Every sector has struggled with the severe workforce shortage, and senior care is no exception. There are more than 23,000 jobs currently vacant across Minnesota’s nursing home and assisted living settings, and there’s no reprieve in sight.

Seniors are being turned away from long-term care facilities or placed on lengthy waiting lists, sometimes far from their families.

Nearly 80 percent of Minnesota’s nursing homes are limiting admissions due to insufficient staff.

Unlike other sectors, long-term care settings can’t simply raise wages because the state sets the rate they can charge. State lawmakers set both Medicaid and private pay rates for nursing homes. If wages are going to increase permanently, funding must come from the state.

While funding for assisted living and other care options is different from nursing homes, the fundamental problem doesn’t change – the state of Minnesota is a critical partner in improving Medicaid reimbursement rates to support improved caregiver wages.

To care for the growing number of seniors in Minnesota, we must support new and alternative care models and fix regulatory barriers that impact access to safe, quality care in all communities.

Specifically, the state needs to fund permanent wage increases for caregivers by investing in the systems used to set rates for nursing homes, assisted living and other home-and community-based services.

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There is no other way to put it. Our current system of senior care is crumbling. A recent survey of Minnesota nursing homes and assisted-living facilities found that 40 nursing homes may close if the state takes no action.

We are watching the crisis unfold; six Minnesota nursing homes have closed in 2022 already. Meanwhile, more and more Minnesotans are in need of long-term care every day.

We want to be clear, while we are incredibly grateful for the progress made by the Senate on our legislative proposal and passage of frontline worker bonuses for our hardworking caregivers during the pandemic, it’s not a long-term solution. The one-time payments are a show of gratitude, not a permanent fix to a systemic problem.

As Minnesota seniors and their caregivers wait for the next session to resume, we are committed to being a strong voice for them. The state has a moral obligation to foster an environment in which seniors can access the care they need in the place they call home.

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