CALAIS, Maine — It was standing room only Thursday morning at Washington County Community College’s assembly room as more than 100 people concerned about a proposal to shut down the 52-bed Atlantic Rehabilitation and Nursing Center attended a five-hour public hearing convened by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
Last fall, DHHS approved a certificate-of-need application submitted by Portland-based First Atlantic Healthcare, which is planning to close its 39-year-old Calais facility and build a new facility in Ellsworth. That proposal would displace residents, leave 92 staff without jobs and eliminate every licensed nursing home bed in Calais.
DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew agreed to reconsider the decision after receiving a letter of appeal from Calais Mayor Joseph Cassidy. In that letter, Cassidy notes there are few empty nursing home beds in Washington County.
Testimony presented Thursday will be reviewed by Mayhew, who will make the final decision on First Atlantic’s certificate-of-need application.
Among the most vocal opponents of the plan to close the Calais facility has been Maine Senate President Kevin Raye, who is a Washington County resident. While his duties in Augusta precluded his attendance Thursday, his wife, Karen, opened public testimony by reading Raye’s remarks.
“While I have no objection to the proposed new facility in Ellsworth, I object strenuously to the loss of crucial nursing home beds in an area where the need for beds is well documented,” Raye said in his remarks. “The city of Calais is negotiating with First Atlantic in an effort to maintain the only nursing home beds in all of Washington County. If the [certificate of need] is approved, then there is no incentive, other than adverse public opinion, for First Atlantic to continue to work towards a solution.”
Raye said he understands that finding a way to keep the Calais facility up and running will not be easy.
“It is my hope that, in addition to withholding approval for this [certificate-of-need] request until we are able to reach an agreeable compromise that would amend it to leave adequate beds in Washington County, the department will leave no stone unturned to identify new approaches to ensuring that areas with extremely high Medicaid eligible populations are not left without local access to vital nursing home care.”
Also testifying Thursday morning were Cassidy and Calais City Manager Diane Barnes. She noted that Atlantic Rehabilitation is now among the top five employers in a community with an unemployment rate of 11.8 percent, compared with a rate of 8 percent for all of Maine and 11.6 percent for Washington County.
Barnes also said mothballing the facility would cost the city $29,000 in annual property taxes and $34,000 in lost water and sewer user fees.
Traci Place, a business agent with Teamsters Local 340, said 15 of the workers that her union represents at Atlantic Rehabilitation have lost their jobs and others have seen their hours reduced as the facility’s headcount has fallen to 23.
“Since the news of First Atlantic Healthcare’s intentions for the Calais facility became widely known, the patient numbers have decreased, and no new patients have been admitted,” Place said. “For skilled or technical employees such as RNs, LPNs, CNA medical technicians and CNAs, there are few options for alternative positions in the local area in their chosen profession.”
Testimony in support of keeping the facility open included three hours of comments and insights from local health professionals, clergy and family and friends of current and past Atlantic Rehabilitation residents. Statistical analysis and population demographic projects were interspersed with at times emotional pleas to not disrupt the already fragile lives of the facility’s remaining residents.
Dr. James Whalen, an orthopaedic surgeon from Machias, said he is distressed by the fact that First Atlantic began making plans to close its Calais facility more than a year ago, but only went public with those plans in January of this year after rumors of closure began circulating within the community.
“This decision has already been made, cast in concrete and approved by the state,” Whalen said. “If First Atlantic is not going to be part of the solution, it should get out of the way. We’ll figure it out ourselves; we always have.”
First Atlantic CEO Kenneth Bowden testified that his firm saw Atlantic Rehab expenses exceed revenues during 2011 by $272,000. In the first two months of this year, he said, the facility was $131,000 in the red, due in part to a dwindling resident census.
Bowden said he’s eager to meet with Calais city officials about assuming ownership of the facility, claiming that reimbursement rates for nursing homes that are publicly owned are significantly higher than the rates of reimbursement for which private-sector owners are eligible. He projects the city would see revenues exceed expenses by $80,000 a year.
“If it gets to the point where closure is a necessity, we would stay open and work with families and patients to ensure safe discharge to an appropriate care setting,” Bowden said.
Commissioner Mayhew, who did not attend Thursday’s hearing, will render a decision within 60 days.
“We’ll wait and see what the commissioner has to say, and at that point we’ll make a decision,” Bowden said.