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Commentary: It’s time to invest in Minnesota seniors

By Michelle Haefner and Jim Laine It’s fair to say that as of April 23, making a much-needed investment in Minnesota’s nursing homes does not appear to be a priority for the 2014 Legislature, despite its $1.2 billion surplus. It’s not easy to say, but it’s fair. And it’s a shame, because Minnesota seniors and their caregivers have spent many years looking forward to a time where state budget woes were no longer an excuse for inaction.

It’s also fair, and it must be said, that nursing homes received an increase in 2013 for the first time in many years. And, that this year’s Legislature is making an investment in home- and community-based services which provides services to seniors in assisted living settings.

But neither the House nor the Senate nor the governor are pushing for an across-the-board rate increase for nursing homes for 2014. And nursing homes remain a key service within the continuum of care.

For more than a decade, the state’s budget has been balanced on the backs of seniors and the hard-working people who care for them. Years of funding cuts and freezes have led to a series of unfortunate events: low wages and benefits leading even our most dedicated caregivers to walk away for better-paying jobs; closure of nursing homes in rural communities like Willmar; and suspending admissions, forcing many seniors to receive care far away from their homes and families.

Minnesota is experiencing a rapid growth in the aging population at a time when state funding has not matched the need under the current long-term care system. The challenges seniors and their caregivers face today will only exacerbate with the growth of our aging population and inadequate investments in care.

These challenges require commitment and leadership from all who are charged with ensuring a strong quality of life for aging Minnesotans — local providers, consumers and families, caregivers, legislators and the governor.

And our legislators know this — they have heard us personally. Just last week, Rep. Mary Sawatzky and Sen. Lyle Koenen participated in a very emotional discussion at Grace Living Community of GlenOaks. And the following week, they heard from us again, this time at a forum held by the House Majority Leader, Erin Murphy (DFL-St. Paul). But in neither place did we get the sense that our leaders were hard at work on a solution for 2014.

It’s not too late. We need leadership now within the administration and Legislature. We call upon our local leaders to set the tone, and work like their own retirements — or their family’s — depend on the outcome of the 2014 session. Because, it might.

Michelle Haefner is president and CEO of Bethesda Health and Housing, Willmar. Jim Laine is administrator of Grace Living Community of GlenOaks, New London.