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‘A huge concern’: Wisconsin long-term care facilities struggle with funding after pandemic

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MADISON (WKOW) -- A recent survey finds only a quarter of nursing homes feel confident they'll make it through the next year.

The American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living asked providers across the US how they're doing as the pandemic continues.

Roughly half of nursing homes and assisted living communities said their organization is operating at a loss and had to make cuts because of increased expenses.

The top costs these facilities have been facing have come because of COVID-19 and its restrictions. As the pandemic hit, long-term care facilities had to overhaul operations to keep people safe.

"It's not going anywhere anytime soon. So, having to deal with all those increased costs of COVID-19 is a huge problem and a huge concern for assisted living all across the state," said Mike Pochowski, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Assisted Living Association.

Pochowski tells 27 News new procedures, infection control, PPE and staff were all more expensive in the past year, as facilities already faced issues keeping things running.

Staffing shortages

A 2020 report from a coalition of industry groups in Wisconsin shows an increase in caregiver vacancies from 19 percent in 2018 to 23.5 percent in 2020. Some places had more than 30 percent vacancies and one in three had to limit admissions because they didn't have enough workers.

"We were having a significant staffing problem in the past. And now I think it's probably the worst it's ever been. Trying to find a good workforce to work in these facilities is a huge problem right now," Pochowski said.

The difficulty of the job and the competition among other industries is driving this shortage, according to experts. And it's impacting facilities across the state.

"We have got to raise that base wage. We have got to work harder to create that career path, to keep good people within our industry or sector, and that will create the longer term stability that we seek moving forward," said Rick Abrams, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Health Care Association and the Wisconsin Center for Assisted Living.

WHCA/WiCAL reports in the past five years, 42 skilled nursing facilities have closed in Wisconsin, including six since the pandemic started. 2019 saw the most closures, with 16.

Medicaid funding comes up short

Abrams says one of the biggest challenges on finances for these facilities has been their primary source of payment for resident stays: Medicaid.

"We're relying on Medicaid. We have got to wean ourselves off of Medicaid as the majority funding source," he told 27 News.

Abrams is hopeful the state budget, up for a vote in the Legislature this week, will make a difference, boosting Medicaid payments to help pay staff. He said the average nursing facility will see a 12 percent payment increase if the budget moves forward, to pay for caregivers and activities.

He says he also wants to see the industry rebuild into the future to find less reliance on Medicaid money, as Wisconsin's population ages.

"The next step is to retool, revolutionize facility-based long-term care," Abrams said.

Industry experts say even before the pandemic, in 2019, Wisconsin long-term care providers were not paid for nearly $300 million in services provided to residents on Medicaid, because the payments were too low.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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