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State ballot initiative would boost funding for financially ailing nursing homes

Unit Manager Christine Cabral (right) with John Pine at Brandon Woods nursing home in South Dartmouth.
Unit Manager Christine Cabral (right) with John Pine at Brandon Woods nursing home in South Dartmouth.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

A new group called the Massachusetts Senior Coalition said it has collected about 122,000 signatures across the state to force a referendum next year on a proposal to substantially boost Medicaid funding for the state’s financially struggling nursing homes.

The state budget approved by lawmakers in July bumped up nursing home funding from MassHealth, the state Medicaid program, by $50 million, to a total of $415.4 million.

But even that won’t be enough to plug a continuing funding shortfall that has led to the closing of about 30 nursing homes in Massachusetts over the past two years and more than 180 since 2000, according to members of the senior coalition, which is made up of nursing home owners, vendors, staffers, and families of residents.

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Its ballot initiative would ask Massachusetts voters in November 2020 to direct state officials to tie MassHealth funding to the cost of providing long-term-care services under a formula using the nursing homes’ financial reports from previous years. The cost of labor and other expenses, such as utilities and real estate taxes, has been climbing in recent years.

The state requires proponents to gather 80,239 valid signatures to propose new statutes through ballot initiatives next year. Coalition members say they have more than enough.

Chronic underfunding will continue to weaken the state’s remaining 386 skilled nursing facilities, which serve 30,000 residents, members of the senior coalition say. They’re also supporting a bill filed in the state Senate earlier this year, by Senator Diana DiZoglio, Democrat of Methuen, that would similarly increase MassHealth reimbursement to nursing homes.

“The Legislature was kind enough to give us an additional $50 million in this session, but we’re still underfunded by more than $300 million,” said Frank Romano, one of the coalition’s organizers and chief executive of Rowley-based Essex Group Management, which owns a half dozen nursing homes and two assisted-living residences in Massachusetts.

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Under current reimbursement rates, nursing home owners say they lose about $38 a day per resident cared for under MassHealth, which covers more than two-thirds of state nursing home residents. One reason is that nursing homes have to compete for workers with other service businesses, such as warehouses and fast-food restaurants, in the hot state economy.

“The cost of labor is far outstripping what we got from the Legislature,” Romano said. “Seventy-five cents out of every dollar we get goes to labor costs.”


Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.