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No easy answers on funding nursing homes

ST. PAUL -- If taxes need to rise to provide more nursing home funding, so be it, a northwestern Minnesota lawmaker says. "We may need to call for a revenue increase," said Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley. "If [it's] for worthy cause, I am willin...

ST. PAUL -- If taxes need to rise to provide more nursing home funding, so be it, a northwestern Minnesota lawmaker says.

"We may need to call for a revenue increase," said Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley. "If [it's] for worthy cause, I am willing to go out on a limb and say I would increase taxes."

The third-term legislator's previous attempt to get nursing homes more money failed.

"I would like to see a straight-out funding increase because they have been starved for funds, over the last four years especially," he said.

Eken points to staff cuts, pay freezes and other problems at nursing homes that he says can be cured only with more money. The greatest needs, he said, are with nursing home staff levels and pay.

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"I feel we are facing a crisis situation," Eken said.

Top lawmakers on health-care issues agree that nursing homes deserve more money but say they can't guarantee an amount.

DFL Rep. Tom Huntley of Duluth, incoming chairman of the House Health Care and Human Services Finance Division, said nursing homes should be given annual inflationary increases.

However, nursing homes might ask for 7 percent funding hikes each year, "which they probably won't get," Huntley said.

Sen. Linda Berglin, who oversees the Senate's health-care budget committee, said nursing home funding will depend on how much money lawmakers can spend.

"I'm sure that we will want to provide some type of cost-of-living increase," said Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis. "How much that will be we don't know."

Nursing homes received2 percent increases in each of the past two years, Berglin said.

Eken's father, Willis, a former state House majority leader, is in a nursing home and the lawmaker often talks about needs he sees firsthand.

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However, Eken admits finding money will be difficult because nursing homes often are not mentioned during health-care legislation negotiations. Being in the House majority party for the first time could help him get that money, he added.

"I have been disappointed that I have not heard much discussion about nursing homes and long-term care generally," he said. "I feel they have been neglected. One of the reasons why is it is not a sexy issue."

Rural lawmakers are speaking the loudest about nursing home needs because their districts have a higher percentage of elderly.

"It is going to be a struggle, no doubt, because there are a lot of competing interests," Eken said. "I'm going to do the best I can to place it as a top priority."

Forum Communications reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

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