Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a July event in Bangor marking Maine’s bicentennial celebration.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Gov. Janet Mills told lawmakers on Monday that she would allow a measure providing $1 million in additional nursing home funding over two years to go into law after a months-long squabble with legislative Republicans over the issue.

The bill from Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, passed the Democratic-led Legislature in June, but it was one of 39 bills held by the Democratic governor at the end of the 2019 session over her administration’s concern that Maine would exceed a federal funding cap.

Mills said in a letter to legislative leaders on Monday that she would allow the bill to become law after her administration was able to avoid that possible pitfall by using an alternative measure for the cap basing the payment cap on actual costs and not a comparison to Medicaid costs. The law will be retroactive to July 1 and provide nearly $11 million in funding over two years.

Nursing homes have long been underfunded in Maine, the nation’s oldest state by median age. Six homes closed last year and the nursing home population here required the fourth-highest average amount of staff hours in 2017, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The state has responded in recent years by raising reimbursement rates. The Jackson bill will contribute to a 5.5 percent increase in 2020 and a 40 percent increase since 2012, which Mills said “should significantly bolster the ability of our nursing facilities to provide quality care.”

The funding issue, however, is a complex problem. Advocates blamed low reimbursement rates along with a tight labor market and voter-approved minimum wage increases for the 2018 closures. Nursing home workers make wages that are on par with the retail sector.

Mills told lawmakers on Monday that she was directing the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to ask nursing homes to report back on how the rate increase is bolstering the wages of front-line workers, saying it shouldn’t go to administrative expenses.

The Jackson bill became a political football when Mills held it June. The Maine Health Care Association, a trade group for nursing homes, questioned the state’s stance on the federal cap problem and said it was based on a miscalculation.

Legislative Republicans who had tried to fund the bill in the last remaining days of the two-year budget process in the spring hit Mills over the delay then. In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, said the department has identified a greater need and urged Mills to use additional Medicaid money to boost nursing homes.

BDN writer Caitlin Andrews contributed to this report.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...