Uncommon Ground

What Happened?

It’s unclear why state lawmakers are intent on shortchanging nursing homes and allowed a dozen rural facilities to close in just one year

By Mike Jopek

A dozen Montana nursing homes shut down last year. That’s one per month. One out of every five senior care facilities closed in Montana. That’s big. Alarm bells should be ringing at the state Capitol. We can do better.

As the 68th Legislature meets in Helena during the long winter, locals face a housing crisis. Seniors and workers are getting the boot. Regardless of how we got here, the housing tragedy is bad enough that leaders might act. 

Senior facilities are closing for the same reasons throughout the state. The state Legislature isn’t reimbursing enough federal Medicaid funds to nursing homes through provider rates and employees are hard to retain, especially when local rentals are prioritized for tourists at exorbitant amounts. 

Much of Montana’s staggering one-time budget surplus is federal dollars like those Medicaid funds intended to keep our rural nursing homes and assisted living facilities open. Why federal cash, entrusted to Montana, hasn’t reached seniors is anyone’s cynical and political guess. 

Only state lawmakers can address the living crisis facing Montana seniors. Seems simple enough. Politicians have access to a couple billion dollars of one-time surplus and promised to give taxpayers back half of these federal funds. That leaves plenty of room to help seniors.

Anyone who’s hired home healthcare for a senior family member can attest that it’s quite expensive and services exceedingly hard to secure. Senior apartments or assisted living facilities have very long waiting lines for entry.

It’s unclear why state lawmakers are intent on shortchanging nursing homes and allowed a dozen rural facilities to close in just one year. As the trend continues, rural seniors and their families face daunting decisions. 

Many state lawmakers want seniors to age in place. Montana better freeze reappraisal values for locals living in their homes. It’s nutty how dramatically state tax valuations increased since lawmakers switched homeowners to biannual appraisal cycles. 

There’s a lot of good Montana can do for local seniors. Unfortunately, state lawmakers remain distracted by petty and vengeful political retribution, directed squarely toward municipalities. Lawmakers continue to repeal the local controls safeguarded by our state constitution. The state doesn’t know local and issues facing Whitefish and Saco are not the same. 

As state lawmakers return home, during a halftime break from their 90-days of political sequestration in Helena, go ahead and remind our statesmen and stateswomen to care for seniors living in our communities.

The feds gave seniors nearly a 9% increase in Social Security payments this year on top of the almost 6% increase last year. These federal raises clearly help fixed income retirees and remain much appreciated. The dollars though, pale to the resources required to live in Montana during a housing crisis which displaces both seniors and workers from their homes with little notice. 

Everyone knows who runs Montana. Seniors would like to give credit to the supermajority party for saving elder care within the state. It’s OK to be conservative with budgets, return plenty to taxpayers, but don’t throw grandma out with the baby’s bathwater. 

Montana’s own study, which the state commissioned since the legislature last convened in Helena, indicated that provider rates paid to senior care facilities are woefully low. State lawmakers should invest in provider rates for both senior care and childcare. 

There’s no winner take all when it comes to seniors or children. We’re talking about us, all of us, and our families. Grandma was generous and taught kindness to her family. She never talked politics and always did right by the kids. Hopefully lawmakers listen to their elders.

It seems uncertain whether Montana will help reopen any of the dozen closed elder facilities, but state lawmakers, flush with federal cash, can easily afford to lower the burden facing today’s seniors. 

Mike Jopek formerly served in the Montana Legislature and is now a farmer in Whitefish.