As two lifelong nurses and leaders in long-term care, hearing legislators say they won’t forget our seniors this session gives us reason to hope. But making sure elderly loved ones can access care when they need it requires more than words. We need financial support now.
For years, lawmakers have promised to care for our seniors yet fail to act when it matters most. As they kick off this session’s budget discussions, it’s time to ensure quality care for our seniors. With a historic budget surplus, state leaders must prioritize funding for long-term care in order to alleviate the devastating workforce crisis that they let linger for far too long.
Minnesota seniors and their families face an increasingly common struggle: accessing senior care options during a severe shortage of caregivers. Statewide, nearly 20,000 long-term caregiver positions remain open. Meanwhile, our senior population continues to grow with fewer options for care. In October of 2022 alone, Minnesota saw 11,000 admission denials. In cases like these, seniors are forced on long waiting lists or to seek care in communities far from their support systems.
Senior care is a vital component of our healthcare system. The senior caregiver shortage sends ripple effects throughout the healthcare system. Seniors ready for discharge after a hospital stay are stuck waiting for an opening in long-term care, causing Minnesotans to wait longer for elective surgeries or to struggle to find a hospital accepting new admissions. This crisis is not just problematic in select communities. This happens in every corner of the state. And it impacts every Minnesotan who needs care.
Workforce shortages may be common these days, but ours is uniquely driven by inadequate funding from the Minnesota Legislature and Gov. Tim Walz. Fifty-five percent of nursing home residents rely on Medical Assistance to pay for their care, and low-income seniors use Medicaid dollars for assisted living. For years, state funding has failed to cover the cost of care for both services. The culprit behind the shortage is a lack of commitment from our state leaders who have ignored this crisis for far too long. Our seniors should not be invisible. They have cared for us and paid their taxes over the years. And when they needed us the most, we ignored this vulnerable population.
Senior care providers are exhausting their options as they try to retain and attract caregivers. Our current funding levels limit the average starting wage for a senior care worker at less than $17 per hour, not nearly enough for the exhausting and important work we ask of them. Many senior care providers have increased wages over the past two years with no additional state reimbursement. They are burning through reserves and using credit lines to stay afloat.
Senior care providers are out of options to pay for the recent and future pay raises. To continue carrying this burden would be unsustainable and push them further to the brink. While they’re doing everything they can to keep their doors open, the state has seen a troubling amount of closures over the course of the last few years. The current system sets care settings up for financial instability, which only threatens access to senior care even more.
Legislative inaction cannot be an option this session
We cannot risk seniors’ well-being and limit their healthcare options. Minnesota has more than one million seniors. One in four Minnesotans will be age 65 or older by 2030, and someone turning 65 today has almost a 70% chance of needing long-term care services at some point in the coming years. At the same time, caregivers continue to find other healthcare jobs with better pay and less stress. The growing gap between aging adults seeking care and the number of long-term caregivers must be closed.
This session, we have heard legislators promise not to leave the state’s one million seniors behind. In House and Senate hearings, support for long-term care funding has been near unanimous, but words will only go so far. We need our elected leaders to commit to taking care of our seniors, just as Sens. John Hoffman (DFL-Champlin) and Jim Abeler (R-Anoka) and Rep. Heather Edelson (DFL-Edina) have. We’ve watched the legislature take swift action in policy areas not facing crisis-level struggles, yet when it comes to caring for Minnesota’s seniors, lawmakers seem to lack that same sense of urgency. We know the state can address the very workforce issues that limit access to senior care. It’s only a matter of willingness.
With budget discussions soon underway, now is when the rubber meets the road. We urge lawmakers to prioritize long-term care funding in the budget. We hope legislators will apply the same level of determination they have demonstrated so far this session to address the senior caregiver shortage. The well-being of Minnesota seniors depends on state leaders fulfilling their commitment this legislative session.
Barbara Klick and Amanda Johnson serve as the board chairs of LeadingAge of Minnesota and Care Providers of Minnesota, respectively.