HARTFORD – “If you own a nursing home, how much do you make?” State Sen. Martha Marx, D-New London, grilled Matt Barrett, the president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Healthcare Facilities, at a hearing on Thursday.
Barrett represents about 150 nursing homes, or about 75 percent of the facilities in Connecticut.
“You may not be making anything if you own a nursing home in this environment. In fact, I think it’s been studied that the margins on nursing homes are diminishing considerably, and for higher Medicaid nursing facilities the margins are very small,” answered Barrett.
“Then why are they buying the nursing homes? Because they really [garbled] love patients that much?” asked Marx.
As legislators considered a bill that would require nursing homes to increase the number of staff hours that patients would receive from 3 to 4.1 hours a day, the debate hinged on the whether the the nursing home industry is prioritizing profits over patient care, as some claimed, or instead that the bill is mandating the impossible for business already squeezed by meager reimbursements and a tight job market.
Industry representatives testified that a bill requiring them to hire more staff would only put more pressure on their already depleted workforce and force them to spend more money on staffing agencies charging high prices for temporary workers.
Curtis Rodowicz, co-owner of Colonial Health And Rehab in Plainville, called the goal of 4.1 direct care hours “unreachable.” He said that while the additional cost of staff salaries would be over $1 million for his business, even additional money wouldn’t address the real problem — the staffing shortage.
“The climate for this workforce can be best described, in my eyes, as disintegrating. It’s just dissolving,” said Rodowicz.
State Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, asked Rodowicz whether he had received a bonus.
Rodowicz answered that he had not.
Cook asked Rodowicz, what was the starting salary for a certified nursing assistant.
Rodowicz replied that it started at $18.50 an hour.
“I can go to Target and work for $22 or $23 an hour,” said Cook. “But yet we’re only paying somebody that is caring for the life of someone — their well-being: cleaning them, bathing them, feeding them — we’re only paying them 18 and change?”
Rodowicz said that like many nursing facilities, he has had to rely more on staffing agencies to fill empty positions — he said that between 2019 and 2022, the yearly amount he paid staffing agencies increased from $14,000 to over $530,000. Other nursing homes said they were offering gift cards to local businesses or thousands of dollars in recruitment and retention bonuses to their workers.
But Cook said she believed that the problem that the nursing homes were having was not a staff shortage, but having to work for low wages in an environment where they were putting themselves at risk of physical injury because of a lack of staff.
“They are being overworked, they are underpaid and asked to do much more with less for 18 and change,” said Cook. “This is for any other administrator that’s watching: pay your CNAs more.”
Rodowicz and Barrett blamed Medicaid on the nursing home’s inability to pay certified nursing assistants more.
They also asked for more investment in workforce training. Barrett and others cited the closure of Stone Academy, which ran training programs for nurses, and had a partnership with some nursing homes.
State Rep. Kurt Vail, R-Stafford, said he felt the nursing home industry was being “attacked a little bit” and said he would rather work with the nursing homes than put mandates on them.
“We obviously have a workforce issue. You’re not able to hire nurses. And I don’t think mandating that you have them when there’s no one to fill those things, I don’t think that’s productive,” he said.
But he added that the nursing homes also needed to do their part.
“Not just come in and say ‘No, we don’t want to do anything’ but come in and come in with some suggestions and be part of the conversation,” Vail said.
Officials at the Department of Social Services estimate that the cost of adding additional staffing hours — which would be reimbursed through Medicare — would cost an additional $30 million, of which $15 million would be paid by the state.