James M. Berklan

It’s human nature to maintain a biased eye when considering information that might help your own position or point of view. We all do it, consciously or not.

That goes for everything from choosing a family vacation to determining the night’s restaurant to selecting a policy or political position.

Grab a scintilla of data, or even merely someone’s boldly stated opinion, and off you go. This internet thing has been especially helpful in promoting a cause, no matter how great or small the merit.

A good example of this was when word spread in early September about a trio of Maine nursing homes announcing their pending closures. Financial pressures, compounded by staffing shortages, were primarily blamed, though as with most things like this it was not just one straw that broke the camels’ backs.

McKnight’s dutifully noted the unfortunate circumstances, and so did many others. Many, many others. Not only local and other industry publications but also far-flung outlets that one would never imagine having interest in the Pine Tree State. The sense was that an “I told you so” moment had been reached. Anyone who had predicted any kind of doom and gloom for the sector had found validation with some fresh poster “children.”

While our lingering pandemic drama may sadly still be relatively young, facilities’ teetering financial worries are a bit more complex than face value. The long-term care problems in Maine and many other areas are deeper than just who’s willing to get vaccinated to work.

Age-old challenges pertaining to hiring and maintaining a relatively low paid workforce remain in play. The pandemic may be the shiny, new Death Star in the room, but it’s not the only danger.

News comes this week that one of those defunct Maine facilities would like to reopen but it can’t because it can’t find enough qualified staff who … can afford to live near their workplace.

Providers around the country have wrestled with this problem for decades. To solve it, a chicken-or-egg question must be answered: Should affordable housing nearby be increased or should wages and benefits be raised to enable workers more suitable living conditions?

The answer is yes. To both.

In one Maine situation, a task force researched how to reopen Island Nursing Home on Deer Island. Hancock County, as it turns out, is one of the most expensive areas in the state.

At least 26 job candidates have turned down employment offers at the facility, however. The reason? They could not find affordably priced housing in the area, the facility’s board president said recently. This is not a problem unique to isolated Maine locales.

Unfortunately, the subway or other mass transportation is not an option. An employer shuttle might eventually help. But even then, area officials say that local landlords would have to start opening up rental units at affordable rates to accommodate would-be SNF workers.

“The community must come together with long-term commitments of money, time, real estate housing and other forms of support,” the task force chairman told the Bangor Daily News.

And there you have it. At some point, local communities are going to have to show their desire to have quality care in their midst. If they want highly regarded long-term care for their loved ones — or care at all, in some cases — they can do more to help make it happen. This could include answering housing and common health needs for would be staffers.

On the latter front, COVID-19 vaccination rates may come into play. Academic researchers have shown a strong correlation between COVID prevalence in a surrounding community and how prevalent the virus will be inside a nursing facility. How safe does a community want its frail, elderly facility residents? How they treat their caregivers can be a telling indicator.

James M. Berklan is McKnight’s Long-Term Care News Executive Editor.
Opinions expressed in McKnight’s columns are not necessarily those of McKnight’s.