ST. PAUL — The struggle to recruit and retain nursing home workers at facilities in and around Rochester has prompted a local lawmaker to take action.

Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, has introduced a bill that would boost funding for nursing homes within 30 miles of Rochester. During a legislative hearing Wednesday, Liebling explained local nursing homes are having a tough time finding and keeping workers because they have to compete with Mayo Clinic, which can afford to pay much higher wages.

"Mayo Clinic is right now undergoing a situation where they have shortages of nurses, and they are hiring like crazy or trying to. And there's a particularly acute situation because they can easily hire staff away from all the surrounding facilities," Liebling said.

Her bill would make sure nursing homes in the region are being reimbursed at the median rate for Twin Cities' facilities. Those additional dollars would be required to go toward employee compensation. But Liebling said the point of her bill is mainly to highlight the needs in Rochester. Instead of passing her proposal, she wants lawmakers to boost funding for all nursing homes and improve the way the state pays them.

Funding for nursing homes has been front and center in this year's legislative session. House Republicans have pledged to make the issue a top priority. House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the caucus' budget plan will include about $160 million for nursing homes. That's far more than the $25 million DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has earmarked for nursing homes in his revised budget.

A proposal moving in both the House and Senate would revamp the way the state pays nursing homes. House author Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, said since 1993, the state has set the reimbursement rates for nursing home facilities. But over the years, those rates have failed to keep up with inflation. Schomacker's bill would base reimbursement rates on expense reports filed with the state. He said it's critical state lawmakers act quickly to help struggling nursing homes. Five years ago, he said the state's nursing homes had a total profit of more than $30 million. That has since plummeted to $4 million in profit for the roughly 350 facilities in the state.

"There's been a dramatic shift in just how much funding is available in the system, and I think we're at a really big turning point if we can't get going in a different direction," he said.

Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, is sponsoring the bill in the Senate.

The nursing home industry agrees it's time to take action. Jodi Boyne, a spokeswoman for the Long-Term Care Imperative, warns that nursing homes in the state are reaching a tipping point. For years, the state's reimbursements have failed to keep up with rising costs. Add to that the need for increased care with more medically complex cases, and the pressures that nursing homes face have become overwhelming.

"There is not one nursing home or senior care provider in the state of Minnesota that is not in need of this reform. This is not an industry that is doing well," Boyne said.

Since 2000, 68 nursing homes have closed in the state. In 2014, 1,500 Minnesotans weren't admitting to a nursing home due to a shortage of staff, according to Boyne.

Madonna Living Community CEO Mark Noble knows all too well the challenges facing elderly care providers. He said the facility's costs go up an average of 5 percent per year but state funding has failed to keep pace with that. That makes it even tougher for the facility to find caregiving staff in Rochester, which has an unemployment rate of 3.1 percent.

"If we don't get that annual rate increase and our costs go up by 5 percent, we have to find a way to cover that, and it makes it hard for us to give raises to our employees," Noble said.

It remains to be seen whether Schomacker's $200 million proposal can win the support necessary to pass this legislative session. In the meantime, several lawmakers — including Liebling — are introducing bills to help increase funding for nursing homes in their districts. Liebling told her colleagues it's time to pass a statewide solution.

She added, "I am really hoping it's not going to be about my district or your district. It's going to be about all of us."

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