Kari Thurlow, Minnesota

The newly appointed head of Minnesota’s Nursing Home Workforce Standards Board managed the campaign of Gov. Tim Walz (D) and headed up political operations for several labor unions but appears to have no experience in the long-term care sector.

Leah Solo was Walz’s campaign manager from June 2018 to August 2018 before being moved to deputy campaign manager and unity director, according to her LinkedIn profile. She has been involved in union politics and Democrat political campaigns since 2004. 

After the board’s first meeting Thursday, provider advocates in the state continue to express their concerns about the board’s mission. But the appointment of three individuals who belong to either LeadingAge Minnesota or Care Providers of Minnesota could blunt those worries. 

“The charge of the board remains relatively unclear, and there is a high risk for overreaching, unfunded mandates to grow out of this process, as the board has no authority to provide funding to help support new regulations,” said Kari Thurlow (pictured), president and CEO of LeadingAge Minnesota, in a statement to McKnight’s Long-Term Care News Friday. “Further, the decisions from this board, in combination with the proposed CMS staffing standards and ongoing market pressure, has the potential to make operating a nursing home in Minnesota untenable.”

The Minnesota Legislature balked at providing funding for a $2 per hour increase for long-term care workers, instead creating a regulatory board that has the power to set compensation levels for nursing homes without the authority to appropriate funds for higher wages. The board was created in a $1.5 billion budget package that invested in home- and community-based programs for seniors but excluded funding for nursing homes.

The Nursing Home Workforce Standards Board will be able to set minimum employment standards, certify worker organizations to provide training, and create curriculum training requirements, according to local news reports. The statute calls for the first wage limits and working hours to be set by Aug. 1, 2024.

“We are hopeful that the Nursing Home Workforce Standards Board will take to heart many of the comments shared about the ultimate goal, which is to ensure our residents have access to quality care in their home communities,” Patti Cullen, CEO of Care Providers of Minnesota told McKnight’s on Friday. “While the timeline is ambitious, we know the statutory requirements are very complex and we want to be sure to get it right.”  

Cullen noted that Solo, who was the political director for the SEIU Minnesota State Council, is “still adjusting to a steep learning curve.”

The board’s three members from the provider community are: Katie Lundmark, director of operations for Ecumen, a member of LeadingAge Minnesota; Paula Rocheleau, CEO of Partners Senior Living Options LLC, a member of the board of directors for Care Providers of Minnesota; and Mary Swanson, administrator of Avera Morningside Heights, a member of LeadingAge Minnesota. 

Both provider organizations told McKnight’s that they plan full cooperation with the board and hope for the same in return. 

“We expect this group to operate with transparency and join in our shared goal of ensuring seniors can receive the care they need, when and where they need it,” Thurlow said. “For years, we have tirelessly advocated for legislative action to prioritize funding for wage increases. This board will have to wrestle with the fact that they don’t have the power of the purse strings to fund their recommendations.”