Not everyone was in favor of a bill to fund the closure of the Caribou and Machias veterans’ homes, although dozens of people testified in favor of the legislation on Wednesday.
CEO Kelly Kash, Chairman of the Board Jim Settele and Administrator Don Lagace of Maine Veterans Homes told the Veterans Affairs and Legal Affairs Committee that they did not want to close the homes, but it was necessary after years of financial difficulties, little state support and employment. challenges.
LD 2001, sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson, would clear Maine Veterans Homes of any outstanding debt for the Caribou and Machias facilities, and require the organization to obtain legislative approval to close. Machias and Caribou homes have lost a combined total of $2 million a year over the past few years, association spokeswoman Christine Henson said last week. Facilities are on track to lose a combined $3 million this year.
The organization receives funding like any other long-term care facility in the state through MaineCare reimbursements, federal funding, private paying customers and charitable donations, according to Christine Kirby, Jackson’s director of communications.
Maine Veterans Homes applied to the Legislature in 2019 and 2020 for additional funding, she said.
Kash said Wednesday that the decision to close the two veterans homes was made last October, although it seemed many people were caught off guard when Maine Veterans Homes announced late last month that the Machias Institution would close on April 15 and Caribou Institution on May 1.
By law, Maine Veterans Homes must send a closure plan to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, but the requirement in LD2001 for legislative approval to close one of the veterans homes was a problem for Settle.
“This bill, as introduced today, would significantly reduce the council’s ability to serve our residents by removing our authority and responsibility as trustees,” Settele said. “This authority and responsibility is necessary for the effective management of the MVH.”
While the state has an important but limited role in helping these facilities, it has no legal right to control the closings, Maine Veterans Homes attorney Matt Warner said.
Dozens of people have spoken out in support of Jackson’s bill, including employees of Maine Veterans Homes.
Nashali Parks, a Caribou Home worker, said staffing and hiring hasn’t been a problem she’s seen. She said that during her time at the facility, she bonded with several veterans, many of whom she says are afraid of the facility closing.
“Many of our residents were born and raised in Aroostook County,” said Lucas Cooper, a certified nursing assistant at the Caribou Veterans Home. “The nearest home is in Bangor, about 170 miles away, not to mention the difficulties our residents face of not being able to regularly visit friends and family. The kind of toll this would take on our residents would be heavy to say the least.
Ashley Johnston, another Caribou employee, expressed sadness over the closure of the facilities and remains committed to the care of veterans who have served the country.
“I just want to say on behalf of the staff, those who are left are not going anywhere,” Johnston said. “Other facilities have tried to entice us with signing bonuses, but would pass up that money to save and serve our veterans.”
In a March 2 letter from Jeanne Lambew of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Lambew acknowledged the difficult nature of the circumstances, but supported efforts to maintain those services.
“We are committed to working with the President of the Senate, the MVH leadership and board of directors, and the legislature to determine the appropriate level of funding and a mechanism to provide it that maximizes efficiency and federal funding,” he said. said Lambew.
Homes for Maine veterans were established by the Legislature of Maine in 1977 as a non-profit, quasi-state agency to provide long-term care for veterans and military spouses. Maine Veterans Homes has six locations in the state. Besides Machias and Caribou, there are houses in Bangor, Augusta, Scarborough and South Paris. The state has determined the locations of each of the houses.
Melissa Lizotte, Aroostook Republican & News writer, contributed to this report.