Seven Wisconsin nursing homes have announced closures since last year and staffing shortages have led others to shutter some beds, a state group says, for a total loss of more than 2,000 beds — the equivalent of 29 nursing homes — since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
LeadingAge Wisconsin, which represents nursing homes and assisted living facilities, is asking the state for financial help to improve staffing. A $356.6 million increase for long-term care in the 2021-23 budget provided a welcome boost, but the pandemic has caused costs to keep rising, the group says.
“We’re in a precarious position right now,” said John Sauer, CEO of LeadingAge Wisconsin. The budget increase “didn’t have the significant financial relief that people thought it would because our cost increases escalated beyond what people were projecting when the budget was being developed and passed,” he said.
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The group is asking the state Department of Health Services for assistance similar to a $50 million staffing shortage fund in Minnesota. The health department didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Four of the seven nursing home closures announced since last year are in rural southwest Wisconsin.
The Iowa County Board said last month it was closing Bloomfield Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center west of Dodgeville, citing staffing challenges and the need for costly repairs. The county said it paid $850,000 last year to hire contract staff to work at the facility, which opened in 1962.
Zimmerman Nursing Home in Reedsburg and Woods Crossing at Woods Point in Brodhead closed last year, according to LeadingAge Wisconsin. Neillsville Care and Rehab, and Bornemann Senior Communities in Green Bay also closed last year, and Ladysmith Care and Rehab is closing this year, for a total of seven closures since last year, LeadingAge Wisconsin said.
Five facilities closed in 2020 and many others have delicensed some beds because of staffing challenges, for a statewide total of 26,678 nursing home beds today, 2,041 fewer than in March 2020 when the pandemic began, Sauer said. That’s equivalent to losing 29 typically sized nursing homes of about 70 beds, he said.
The state had 352 nursing homes as of last month, down from 397 in 2016, according to the health department. Part of the reason for the decrease in nursing homes and beds is an increase in demand for assisted living, for which the state had 63,723 beds in 2020, up from 59,224 in 2016, according a state report last year.
Nursing homes, staffed with licensed nurses and equipped to provide physical therapy and other medical services, are regulated by the federal government and inspected routinely by states.
Assisted living facilities, which provide meals, housekeeping and assistance with personal care, have no federal oversight and varying degrees of state supervision. Staffing requirements aren’t as strict, and staff typically have less training.
The state last month said it was sending Wisconsin National Guard members, trained at Madison Area Technical College to become certified nursing assistants, to nursing homes to help them care for residents and free up beds at hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.
Sauer said the National Guard effort has helped, but it is designed to open additional nursing home beds to accept patients who no longer need to be in hospitals, not to help staff previously available nursing home beds.
Meanwhile, he said some nursing homes are struggling to meet a federal requirement that all staff be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Feb. 28. As of Jan. 23, 80.6% of staff at facilities that reported the information had met that mark, compared to 88.9% of residents, according to federal data.
AARP Wisconsin last week called on nursing homes to require COVID-19 booster shots for residents and staff, citing the surge in cases from the highly transmissible omicron variant.
“To make it a requirement on top of everything else that is going on right now, I don’t think we can do that,” Sauer said.