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Rochester care providers still fighting to overcome worker shortage issue

Post-Bulletin - 7/21/2022

Jul. 21—ROCHESTER — Assisted living facilities across Rochester mark their entrances with announcements of on-site interviews and sign-on bonuses.

Meanwhile, statewide 23,000 long-term care jobs sit vacant, forcing more facilities to close in what care providers are calling a "workforce crisis" and "worst case scenario."

According to Cindy Ostrowski, chief executive officer of Hiawatha Homes, which operates 19 residential homes in Olmsted County, the workforce crisis stems from a combination of the pandemic and disability waiver reimbursement rates falling behind inflation.

Care Providers of Minnesota and LeadingAge Minnesota, two associations running a network of homes, released data indicating six nursing homes closed this year, with 440 more long-term care facilities headed towards a similar fate without intervention.

Ostrowski reported that Hiawatha Homes alone closed two homes these past two years, three total since 2018.

The organization now supports 22 fewer people than possible eight years ago as numbers of direct support professionals dropped from 341 to 187.

"I've been supporting people with disabilities since 1989," Ostrowski said. "The workforce crisis is as bad as I've seen it."

Minnesota care providers hoped a Senate-sponsored bill allocating funding towards homes would pass in the 2022 legislative session before it ended on May 23. This didn't happen.

"We were really hoping that they (legislators) would work together to increase wages for our direct support professionals," Ostrowski said.

Some nonprofits lobbied for the budget surplus, in part, to fund the gap between reimbursement rates and the cost of doing business, so workers can be paid a competitive rate. Others want deeper institutional change to the state's service model.

The Long Term Care Imperative, a collaboration between LeadingAge and Care Providers, wants state support for rate increases and staff retention.

This coalition hoped for a special session after May 23, but according to Nicole Mattson, Care Providers of Minnesota's vice president of strategic initiatives, this now "doesn't look realistic."

Mattson said the Senate had a tentative agreement including group home funding in its budgetary framework for the omnibus spending bill but couldn't reach consensus with the House.

"The session ended without funding," Mattson said. "That's really what we need."

Minnesota State Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, called on Gov. Tim Walz to deploy the national guard when 10 Olmsted and Winona county group homes were slated for closure. As a former special education teacher, this issue is important to Nelson.

The proposal attracted bipartisan Senate support in a 61-to-5 vote, but Nelson said the House must have had different priorities.

"Not getting that funding, I think, is beyond a challenge," Nelson said. "I've been asking for a special session since May 23, quite frankly."

The House's proposal focused on one-time funding, like sign-on bonuses or scholarships for job applicants, while the Senate's targeted base wages.

"The challenge with those one-time approaches is that they can't be put towards wages," said Erin Huppert, the vice president of advocacy for LeadingAge Minnesota. "A career-affirming wage is the solution that we know is right."

The University of Minnesota'sInstitute on Community Integration released a study on April 6, putting state care worker wages in context with the pandemic and rising living costs.

It found care workers make significantly lower wages than professionals of similar job responsibilities, with a growing gap between direct support personnel wages in a group home setting and a livable wage. The institute's policy recommendation: address the wage issue urgently.

Staff from care provider ACR Homes, residents and families rallied for a special session outside the governor's mansion on June 28. According to Gene Leistico, ACR Homes' COO and vice president, the organization is still hoping for this.

"We haven't given up," Leistico said. "We believe Minnesota has a long history and tradition of doing the right thing when it comes to long-term care."

Leistico said the state has the resources to address the workforce crisis, but there's a lack of understanding among legislators about the issue's severity.

ACR Homes tried to minimize home closures by not filling vacancies but now has done everything in their power to address the issue, Leistico said.

Recently, ACR homes closed four homes and gave 15 people notice of service termination.

"We ultimately have to have the staff to keep everyone safe," Leistico said.

Some advocates call for a deeper examination into the state's service model in light of mass facility closures.

The Southeastern Minnesota Center for Independent Living organizes resident stories about their long-term care experiences with in hopes of attracting legislators' attention, said Rosalie Eisenreich, SEMCIL's strategic initiatives director.

Eisenreich agrees the state should address the workforce crisis, but it also needs to examine the inherent discrimination in favor of able-bodied individuals in the service model and listen to the people it directly affects by pursuing flexible care options.

"We are looking to try and figure out how to get the legislator's ear," Eisenreich said. "People directly impacted are going to come up with the solutions."


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