BRUNSWICK, Maine — Maine House Speaker Mark Eves on Wednesday announced a series of proposals designed to build more affordable housing for seniors and otherwise help them remain in their homes as they age.
Eves, a Democrat who is running for re-election in his North Berwick House district, said his “KeepME Home” initiative would include a package of bills to create energy-efficient apartments for seniors across the state, increase property tax relief for older adults and increase the Medicaid reimbursement rate for in-home care workers.
Maine residents are the oldest in the nation on average, and the state’s population of older residents is growing rapidly. U.S. census data show that 21 percent of the state’s population is 60 or older and that by 2030, one-quarter of Mainers will be older than 65.
Speaking to a crowd Wednesday at Creekside Village in Brunswick, Eves said that although Maine’s population is aging quickly, government is not keeping up with the housing needs of the state’s older residents. The state has the oldest housing stock in the country, and thousands of Maine seniors are on waiting lists for affordable housing, he said.
At Creekside Village, the waiting list for housing includes 140 seniors, according to John Hodge, executive director of the Brunswick and Topsham housing authorities.
Specific policy proposals Eves said he hoped to introduce when a new Legislature convenes in December include a $65 million general obligation bond to develop 1,000 highly energy-efficient apartments for seniors in 40 locations in across all of Maine’s counties; an increase to the state’s Property Tax Fairness Credit; and an increase to Medicaid reimbursement rates for direct care workers who provide in-home and personal care services.
Lee Picker, 75, of Sabattus, told those gathered that the three proposals will address the largest obstacles for older people attempting to remain independent and stay in their homes.
“As property taxes or the price of oil rises, we have to choose between putting food on the table or paying for medicine,” Picker said. “Many of us are also concerned about our family caregivers who might have to stop working or juggle schedules to help with care.”
Last fall, Eves worked with the Maine Council on Aging to hold the Speaker’s Round Table on Aging in Maine.
“So many Mainers are personally affected by the challenges of aging in our state,” Eves said, noting that his father will turn 91 this November. “As I’ve traveled across the state, I’ve heard the same message from seniors as I’ve heard from my dad. They want to age in place. They want a more secure retirement.”
Eves said he did not have specifics about how much the proposal would seek to increase the reimbursement for in-home care workers or the property tax credit, adding that the conversation was just beginning.
Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Paul LePage, said Wednesday that the LePage administration is well-aware of the need to address housing for seniors.
“We have been prioritizing [resources], and that has been the basis of not expanding welfare,” she said. “Because we have not expanded welfare, we have been able to prioritize funding for our most vulnerable — our seniors. We know we have an aging demographic. We have been well aware of this and that’s why you saw such a huge push from the governor in the last legislative session to fund nursing homes to an adequate level.”
Bennett said 2,500 Maine residents have been removed from housing waitlists as a result of the savings found within the Department of Health and Human Services. In an apparent swipe at Eves, she reiterated the administration’s position that LePage’s opposition to expanding Medicaid eligibility, as allowed by the Affordable Care Act, helped free up funds to address the needs of older Mainers. During the most recent legislative session, LePage vetoed five bills sponsored by Democrats that would have expanded Medicaid eligibility in Maine.
“Our most vulnerable citizens — our children, the disabled, our seniors and those with mental illness — those are the priority this administration has focused on, while Speaker Eves and other liberals have focused on expanding Medicaid to people who have the ability to work … and who are, overall, able-bodied. We’re glad they’re finally on board with us, because this should not be a partisan issue.”
House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport touted tax reform as a way to help Maine seniors.
“House Republicans have also long worked for lower overall taxes in the state, which would very much help seniors afford to stay in their homes,” he said in a statement Wednesday. “These are tough issues, and require that we all roll up our sleeves and work hard to do what is best for Maine families. … I hope political rhetoric won’t get in the way of real accomplishment.”
Eves also called for “bipartisan buy-in.”
“Maine’s population is aging rapidly,” he said. “The demographic reality is a challenge that we can change into an opportunity by ensuring our seniors can live independently in their homes and communities. The policies outlined will help our seniors, their families and our economy by investing in jobs and workers.”
BDN staff writers Christopher Cousins and Mario Moretto contributed to this report.