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Maine Voices: Effort to bolster health care can be ‘engine of opportunity’ for our state

Maine Voices: Effort to bolster health care can be ‘engine of opportunity’ for our state

Two recent headlines starkly define Maine’s future. The first heralded the Roux Institute’s ambitious plan to develop a glittering technology center on the B&M Beans site along Portland’s waterfront, to become an incubator for innovation, “an engine of opportunity.” And a cause for celebration.

The Mills administration has released $146 million in state and federal funds to support the recruitment and retention of nursing home workers in Maine – but meeting this challenge will take a new mindset as well as money.  Dreamstime/TNS

This private-philanthropic investment in the city and state is a brass ring chased by every civic leader in America these days. It promises to lure new investment; attract and retain skilled workers (especially younger ones), and juice up this corner of New England as a vibrant place to work and live for years to come.

The second headline was a warning flag of what’s happening now and what’s to come. Three Maine nursing homes have closed, with more closures imminent. According to the Maine Health Care Association, the shortage of workers is “crippling the ability of long-term care facilities to meet the needs of residents.” This shortage was looming long before COVID, but the pandemic has accelerated it into a crisis.

Within hours of the closure news, the Mills administration announced it would release $146 million in state and federal funds to support workforce recruitment and retention. Long overdue, that, too, is a cause for celebration. It is, however, not a solution. That will require more than dollars. It requires a new mindset in Maine.

For want of a better description, let’s refer to the Roux Institute project as “superstructure,” tangible proof that Maine can reel in high tech and big bucks with the best of them.

It’s also imperative that Maine – its elected officials, business executives and civic leaders – tackle the state’s ailing employment “infrastructure” just as aggressively as it’s building showplace “superstructures.”

And nowhere is the state’s employment infrastructure shakier than the struggling nonprofit health care industry.

The shortage of workers in this field exemplifies the underbelly of Maine’s economy and demographics. Attracting, training and rewarding dedicated caregivers is just as critical to this state’s future as filling shiny new office towers and laboratories.

Maine is old. That’s not news. Some areas of Maine are really old. On Chebeague Island, where I live, a quarter of our year-round population is over 70, according to the latest U.S. census. What we need – and what all of Maine needs urgently – is an incentive to design and implement an infrastructure that sees an aging population as an “engine of opportunity.”  An asset, if you will.

Maine is in the thick of a demographic crisis that soon will overtake much of this graying nation. We’re simply ahead of the curve. Why not seize the occasion to lead? To come up with innovative ideas that address the shortage of caregivers everywhere, providing incentives for training and advancement, guaranteeing livable wages and benefits and – while we’re at it – elevating the respect these caregivers deserve for the vital role they play in our society?

We need them now. Soon, we will be desperate.

A public-private partnership that sees the needs of Maine’s aging population as a laboratory, one that attracts ample research and technology and comes up with a game plan, is as worthy of a celebration as a new campus on the the waterfront.

Maine already has resources to launch this worthy mission. For starters, even basic needs surveys must be undertaken. What is the demand for care, and in what forms (residential or in-home)? What would make this an attractive job (health benefits, tuition subsidies, a career ladder to make training “portable,” thus enabling advancement)? What assistance do Maine’s elders really want and need (companionship, transportation, respite care)? These all are unknowns, but unknowns with answers – if someone takes the time to ask.

And, of course, the state itself must raise the stakes with funding, leadership and political will. Make this a competition to come up with innovative ideas and solutions, just as we all have been promised by the Roux Institute’s new investment.

The opportunity to seize the national spotlight with programs and policies that become models for the rest of this country is there for the taking, a brass ring of another sort.  Maine has a chance to grab it and win.

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