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Critics say cuts to hurt those in nursing homes

Funds help residents leave facilities for short periods

By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / June 16, 2011

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Massachusetts nursing home residents who are briefly hospitalized or leave to visit family risk losing their bed in the facility under a proposed state budget cut that is sparking outrage among advocates for the elderly and disabled.

The $9 million to be cut was intended to pay nursing homes to reserve a resident’s bed for up to 10 days, but the program has been eliminated in the budget legislators are finalizing. Without a reprieve, the program will end July 8.

“If a caring family member brought their 90-year-old grandmother home for a long holiday weekend, that individual would have to risk losing their bed in the facility they call home in order to enjoy that day or two with their family,’’ said Debbie Banda, director of AARP Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, a statewide consumer group, delivered petitions yesterday bearing nearly 1,600 signatures to the governor’s office and launched a phone campaign aimed at persuading lawmakers to restore funding.

The loss of a nursing home bed feels “more like an eviction than a room transfer,“ and residents can “suffer medical and psychological harm from such an upheaval,’’ said Arlene Germain, the group’s president.

In 2010, there were 28,854 occasions in which a bed was held for a nursing home resident whose bill was paid by Medicaid, according to state figures.

Patrick administration spokeswoman Jennifer Kritz said that the number of people who used the bed-hold provision is probably significantly smaller because the same person may have needed a bed held multiple times.

Federal law requires nursing homes to readmit a resident after a temporary leave to the first available bed in a semiprivate room, but it does not guarantee the person the same room or bed as before.

Advocates said that because so many nursing home residents have dementia, the prospect of facing a new bed and room each time they leave and return can be especially confusing.

But Kritz said there are, on average, about 10 empty beds per facility on any given day, so a nursing home usually is able to retain an individual’s bed following a hospitalization or other temporary absence.

“We continue to face the effects of an unprecedented budget crisis and are committed to spending taxpayer dollars wisely and to support vital services for our members,’’ she said.

But advocates and nosing home operators said residents who live in homes that specialize in specific types of care, such as for younger, disabled people or for Alzheimer’s patients, face a lot more competition for beds in highly sought facilities.

That is what troubles Karen Montgomery, a Stoneham mother whose 31-year-old son lives in a Middleborough facility. Confined to a wheelchair and requiring 24-hour care since a car accident 9 years ago, Ronnie lives in a home that specializes in caring for young people with brain injuries.

One of the bright spots in his life, Montgomery said, is summer camp that allows him to experience fireworks, farms, swimming, and dances.

“It’s really heartbreaking for me to tell him he can’t do that anymore because if he leaves, he may not be able to go back to his nursing home,’’ Montgomery said.

A top state lawmaker said legislators would like to restore funding for the bed-hold program but had to make tough choices, given the $1.7 billion budget gap they faced.

“As the economy improves, we certainly would like to ensure we would guarantee programs like this,’’ said Stephen Brewer, a Barre Democrat who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.