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Nursing homes seek raises

ST. PAUL - John Boughton's nursing home cannot compete when it comes to hiring nurses.

For instance, his Kenyon Sunset Home paid one nurse $15 an hour less than she could earn in the nearby Twin Cities, and the Kenyon nursing home's health care coverage was far inferior, he told a House health committee Wednesday. This week, he started to offer a $2,000 signing bonus to replace the nurse, who quit after one day on the job.

Boughton's testimony sounded like that from nursing home administrators in all rural areas. "There is nothing unique about our story."

To help fix the rural problem, Rep. Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, on Wednesday told the House health care finance committee about his bill to boost the amount nursing homes receive to care for state-funded patients. Those payments and Medicare account for most rural nursing home revenue, and limit how much homes can pay employees.

Sviggum said rural nursing homes should be paid about the same as those in the Twin Cities receive.

"We should not be treating personnel ... in Worthington as second-class citizens," Sviggum said.

Committee Chairman Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, agree with Sviggum that nurses and other health-care workers compete in a statewide market.

"We are a prisoner of the interstate highway," Huntley said.

Huntley said the committee would consider whether to increase nursing home funding later this legislative session. Regional centers are included in the rural classification.

At least seven bills have been introduced to boost funding in all or parts of the state. However, legislative leaders have not put nursing home funding near the top of any of their priority lists.

Sviggum, who expects to soon serve on the Sunset Home board, said it is one of his top three priorities, but admitted it will be hard to get funding because the public demands increasing spending for many programs.

"There are more expectations out there among the people because we have a budget surplus," Sviggum said.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty recommended at least a 1.5 percent overall increase in elderly care programs, but he has not proposed raising rural nursing home funding more than for the Twin Cities.

"Long-term health care is the biggest issue no one is talking about," said Kari Thurlow of the Minnesota Health and Housing Alliance.

However, she told the committee, if financial problems force nursing homes to close, the economic impact would be felt throughout the economy.

Boughton's Kenyon nursing home is in typical financial condition for rural facilities. He said budget deficits up to $375,000 have faced Sunset Home in recent years. He said he expects a $100,000 loss in the next year.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.