By: Sen. Susan M. Collins
Earlier this year, Maine Veterans’ Homes, which provides compassionate, quality long-term care to the brave men and women who served our country, announced that it planned to close its facilities in Caribou and Machias, two of the six homes it operates.
Shuttering the Caribou and Machias homes, which employ more than 120 people, would have had a devastating impact on more than 80 veterans and spouses of veterans who reside there. There is already a severe shortage of nursing home beds in rural Maine, which would have forced many Aroostook and Washington county veterans served by MVH to seek placement far away from their communities. The next-closest MVH home in Bangor is nearly two hours from Machias and nearly three hours from Caribou, and it could not have accommodated all of the residents.
We simply could not abandon veterans in rural Maine who have served our country and who now need nursing home care. I heard from numerous families who were worried that these closures would make it nearly impossible for them to regularly see their loved ones. As one woman from the St. John Valley told me, if her father had to be relocated from Caribou to Augusta or Bangor, there is no way that she could visit him as often as she does now to check on him, keep him company, and make sure that he is doing as well as possible. My own father, a World War II combat veteran, spent the last months of his life at the veterans home in Caribou, where he received excellent care. I know how much he liked being with other veterans. I also know how important it was for him to be close to our family.
When MVH made its announcement in February, I immediately began working closely with the rest of Maine’s Congressional Delegation, the Governor, and legislators from Aroostook and Washington counties to find a way to prevent these vital facilities from closing. We met repeatedly with the MVH Board’s leadership to urge them to reverse their decision, and we pledged to provide whatever support was necessary. Following this united effort, MVH changed course and decided to keep both the Caribou and Machias veterans homes open.
I have long championed funding for MVH as a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee for Veterans Affairs. Over the years, I have worked with the MVH Board to increase the per diem that the VA pays to help offset the cost of caring for veterans. MVH also received nearly $2 million in emergency funding from the CARES Act to address increased costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, with my support, MVH has received numerous federal construction or renovation grants for its facilities, including $50 million in 2018 for its new Augusta home.
At the state level, the Maine House and Senate voted unanimously to pass a bill, which Gov. Mills signed into law, to provide MVH with $3.5 million through the next fiscal year. This new law also mandates a public hearing and legislative proposal to close a facility to prevent a surprise announcement in the future.
Our debt to our veterans is one we can never fully repay. As the veteran population ages, there is going to be an increasing need for long-term care. That is just one reason that I felt so strongly that this decision had to be reversed to prevent what would have been a truly traumatic outcome for these veterans and their families.
In the land of the free, there must always be a home for the brave. Working with Maine Veterans’ Homes at the federal and state levels, we can continue to honor the courage and sacrifices of those who defend our freedom.