CAMDEN, Maine — Russell and Muriel Madore don’t really know what to think.
When the elderly couple moved into the Merry Gardens Estates assisted living facility here about a year ago, they figured that was their last move.
“We don’t want to do it again,” Russell Madore, who just turned 90, said Thursday afternoon from an armchair in his two-room apartment. “We’re trying to take this with a grain of salt.”
Harland and Eleanor Priestley, who have lived at Merry Gardens since October 2007, hope they don’t have to move because they don’t have anywhere else to go.
“We like it here,” said Eleanor Priestley, 83.
“We’re not ready for a nursing home just yet,” her husband of 64 years added.
Earlier this week, Eastern Area Agency on Aging — a Bangor-based nonprofit that operates Merry Gardens and similar senior housing facilities in Bangor and Millinocket — informed the Madores and other residents that it no longer could manage the units.
A state rule change for MaineCare reimbursement, which went into effect on July 1, has crippled the agency’s ability to provide services without hemorrhaging money, its director, Noelle Merrill, explained.
“There is no other way to scale back without putting people’s lives in jeopardy,” Merrill said. “We’re good at being economical. We’re a nonprofit, so we’re happy to break even or even take a small loss.”
Recently, she said, the agency has been taking a big loss and has set a tentative date of Sept. 30 for departure as service provider.
“This is such a sad thing. Our average age is 87. That’s not a good time to uproot people. If anyone has any ideas, we’re listening,” she said.
Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Brenda Harvey said Thursday that she is working with the owner of Merry Gardens, Freeses Assisted Living in downtown Bangor and Stearns Assisted Living in Millinocket to find a new provider.
“It’s certainly our intent to bring in another provider without diminishing services,” the commissioner said.
Melinda Whitaker, who represents Realty Resources, the landlord for all three facilities, stressed that it is their intent not to displace any of the 90 residents now being housed. She said a letter has been sent to all residents assuring them that their residency is secure for now.
Lynn Boardway, director of Merry Gardens, wants to remain optimistic but she’s concerned for her residents and her staff.
“If the state can’t afford us, how can they afford anyone else?” she said.
Eastern Area Agency on Aging operates the three assisted living facilities in Camden, Bangor and Millinocket, which are among seven subsidized elderly housing complexes throughout the state. Housing in those facilities is kept affordable because the agency was able to collect MaineCare reimbursement on behalf of residents for support services.
That changed July 1.
“They said we could bill only up to a certain amount, but it’s not enough to pay for the services required under licensing,” Merrill said.
Harvey confirmed the change in MaineCare and explained that it was part of cuts to the state’s biennial budget. She also said Eastern Area Agency on Aging has known about possible changes for about two years.
Eastern Area Agency on Aging employs 53 people at its three elderly housing facilities, all of whom likely will be laid off, Merrill predicted.
“Some may want to leave,” she said. “But the economy is so bad, maybe they will stick with it until the eleventh hour. Our staff loves these residents like family. Some have said, ‘I’ll stay even if you don’t pay me.’ That’s how committed they are.”
The Madores and their daughter Lori Searls, who visited Merry Gardens on Thursday, couldn’t say enough about the staff.
“They cry with us,” Muriel Madore said. “These are special people.”
Boardway feels the same way about her residents.
“I’ve had people say to me in the last two days, ‘I hope I die before you go,’” she said. “It breaks my heart.”
If a new provider comes in, it likely would retain at least some of the existing staff, Commissioner Harvey predicted, although there’s no guarantee.
Merrill and Broadway are more concerned about keeping the same level of services for residents at the same cost. Already those facilities — along with four others in Sanford, Augusta, Saco and Portland — have reduced programs that provided meals and some personal care services.
The Priestleys, for instance, couldn’t live anywhere else because they need the assistance Merry Gardens provides. They need help cooking and cleaning and sometimes bathing. Plus, Eleanor Priestley said, the tenants and staff have become the couple’s family.
Eastern Area Agency on Aging has operated the three assisted living facilities for about a decade. Merry Gardens opened in 1997, followed by the Freeses facility in 1999 and Stearns in 2000. The nonprofit also offers a number of other services to elderly residents in the area, including meals, transportation, support groups and legal services, none of which will be affected by the MaineCare reimbursement changes.
Merrill said she understands the state’s predicament and acknowledged that past reimbursements were above and beyond the traditional formula for MaineCare. She just hates to see the elderly suffer because of a bad economy.
“In general, we haven’t come up with a long-term plan for caring for our seniors,” she said. “If we get through this, we’ll advocate for more in the worst way.”