Data shows Gov. Mills’ Team Misled Public About Nursing Home COVID Rates, Funding Remains Source of Stress

Left to Right: Maine DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, Governor Janet Mills, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah.

AUGUSTA – Mills Administration officials didn’t offer many details in press conferences or put forward needed proposals for funding to help Maine’s nursing homes stave off the destruction of COVID over the past few months, but that wasn’t because nursing homes were doing well under Gov. Janet Mills’ administration in the battle to protect residents from COVID.

Instead, federal data reveals a pattern of misleading statements by officials in the administration of Governor Janet Mills, while nursing homes continue to struggle through financial difficulties exacerbated by Mills lack of prioritizing their needs in the state budget.

In the period leading up to the pandemic, Gov. Janet Mills held up a bill for new funding for nursing homes, even as she pushed state spending to new heights across most other parts of state government. Mills mostly shrugged off criticism of her handling of the nursing home funding.

But new data from the federal government shows that the most severe impacts, including the majority of deaths with COVID recorded across Maine, were in those facilities Mills had denied funding in that bill at the start of her first term.

Senator Brad Farrin cited federal data in a press release on May 17th that illustrated just how poorly Maine was doing in protecting nursing home residents compared to other states.

“For the fourth time in the six weeks prior to that date, Maine led the nation in the infection rate among nursing home residents. Sadly, this week, Maine also ranked sixth in the death rate of this same population,” said Senator Farrin.

Now, lawmakers and watchdogs are pointing out that despite Maine’s overall population having one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation, Maine has been at the top of the list of states facing high infection and death rates in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

“These six weeks led up to Governor Mills’ announcement of how she believes more than $2 billion in additional state and federal money should be spent, yet she recommended that less than one half of one percent of this money go directly to the immediate needs of these facilities,” said Senator Farrin, highlighting the disparity between Maine’s nursing home COVID problem and Governor Mills proposed funding in state and federal dollars.

According to Senator Brad Farrin, who has been doggedly pursuing this issue, less than 1% of the new funding being proposed under Governor Janet Mills’ new state budget framework will be spent on this area, where 60% of the overall problem (COVID-Related deaths) exists, according to the federal data.

In his press release, Senator Farrin called on the legislature to act and provide funding for nursing homes, because Governor Mills has once again failed to do so.

“We have been aware for a very long time now that nursing homes are in desperate need of adequate funding to immediately hire more staff to protect our most vulnerable citizens. We have already lost 450 of them—60% of all COVID deaths in Maine. It is now up to the Legislature to act to provide this funding and remedy this horrible situation,” said Senator Farrin.

Farrin also called out officials in the Mills Administration for misleading legislators, the press and the public on the severity Maine’s nursing home infection problems.

One example provided by Senator Farrin was a statement made by Maine DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, when she told the viewers of a daily press briefing that, “Our nursing home death rate, our nursing home infection rate has been lower than most states.”

Except, as Farrin showed in an addendum to his press release, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid, a key agency in the federal Department of Health and Human Services, shows that at the time Lambrew made that statement, their most recent data showed Maine had the highest COVID infection rate and the 5th highest death rate in the nation. Beyond a doubt not “lower than most states” as Commissioner Lambrew had claimed.

Screenshot from an addendum provided by Senator Brad Farrin showing Maine ranked 6th in new COVID infections among nursing home residents in the time frame DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said it had been “lower than most states.”

In another instance, Senator Farrin pointed out that Dr. Nirav Shah claimed Maine had gone more than 30 days without a COVID-related death in a Maine nursing home. Yet, the federal data showed there had been 6 deaths in the 30-day period in which Shah publicly claimed there were no deaths.

In the week Dr. Shah was painting such a rosy picture of Gov. Mills’ management of Maine’s nursing homes against COVID, Maine’s nursing home infection rate was astronomical. Farrin’s addendum, in fact, shows Maine’s rate in that time frame was more than double the next highest state in the nation. Definitively contradicting Dr. Shah’s misleading claim.

Screenshot from an addendum provided by Senator Brad Farrin that shows Federal CMS data saying Maine’s infection rate was more than double the next highest state. Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah claimed in this time period Maine had zero COVID-related nursing home deaths when Maine actually had 6.

It is hard to estimate, however, if new funding or any positive changes for Maine’s nursing homes will materialize. In recent years, Republicans have continued to prioritize nursing home funding but they have mostly been blocked by Democrats.

In the most prominent bipartisan victory for nursing homes in recent memory, a bill to provide additional funding to nursing homes was sent to Gov. Mills’ desk with unanimous support from the Maine Legislature.

But that support came screeching to a dead stop as Governor Mills rejected the bill using an unprecedented maneuver to hold it up, despite an effort to recall it from her desk. In the end, Gov. Mills made an excuse that the bill had flawed language, but statements from legislators indicated the language in question had actually been provided by Governor Mills’ staff.

Read More: In unprecedented defiance of lawmakers, Mills refuses to hand over nursing home funding bill

Only time will tell if Maine’s nursing homes will be provided the financing they need to maintain the health of their residents and their own financial health.

A common refrain from those trying to hire staff for nursing homes is that reimbursement rates do not allow them to compete with the recently raised minimum wage. They say workers can easily find higher paying jobs that are far less strenuous than nursing homes can offer at the anemic rates they are currently reimbursed by the state.

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