By Peggy Marchand, Health Care is a Human Right Committee Member
The Southern Maine Workers’ Center endorsed LD 1317, “An Act To Restore Services To Help Certain Noncitizens Meet Their Basic Needs”, as part of our Health Care is Human Right campaign. We believe all people should get the health care they need, and are organizing for universal health care in Maine and support Medicare for All nationally. We also believe that racism and xenophobia, are used by people in power to keep us from realizing our human rights. This essay a rebuttal to a hateful op-ed written by Rep. Larry Lockman in the Ellsworth American (we won’t drive more traffic to the post by linking it here), which lays out why scapegoating and racism are keeping our state from finding solutions to the issues that impact all of us.
In his recent article printed in the Ellsworth American, (Non-Citizen Welfare Shortchanges Maine Seniors, May 10, 2019) Rep. Lawrence Lockman states his dismay at “the avalanche of hideous legislation,” including LD 1317, the bill proposed by Representative Drew Gattine that that seeks restore eligibility for MaineCare and other safety net programs to immigrants. Like his old mentor and ally, former Governor Paul LePage, Lockman furiously casts blame and blatantly ignores facts, needs, and root causes.
Current economic issues in the state of Maine are far too serious and complex to use scapegoating to defend xenophobic points of view. Beyond the fact that we have a human obligation to welcome people fleeing political and economic hardship, the presence and contributions of the immigrants and refugees who move here may save Maine from a work force disaster.
Our state is in economic trouble and neither immigrants nor those who wish to find ways to support them are the causes of Maine’s work force crisis. Moreover, it is time to acknowledge that welcoming immigrants could be a huge help in Maine’s successfully weathering our labor crisis, one which analysts say is may be temporary right now, but is in danger of becoming permanent, unless we act to get more people into the work force. Economist Charles Colgan says, “Anything we’re doing now to keep immigrants out and anything we’re not doing to attract people to Maine from the rest of the US and the rest of the world, is going to be deadly for the next decade.” Why? Here are some facts:
Maine has the oldest median age, 44.5 years and the largest number of baby boomers of any state, who now are retiring in record numbers. Our work force is shrinking, and may be down 20,000 workers by 2020. In 2017, we experienced 2,379 more deaths than births. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Preventions reports that more deaths will not only reduce the number of workers we have contributing their labor, but also warns of the serious impact fewer workers will have on public revenues. Our youth still flee the state for opportunities and lifestyle experiences they perceive are not offered in Maine; it’s hard to keep them here, let alone count on them to fill work force gaps. And the shortfall is not theoretical, it has begun; the signs “We’re hiring! Help Wanted!” are everywhere. This is Maine’s reality. It will take all of us working together to keep Maine a welcoming place with a viable future. About this information, surely, Rep. Lockman must be aware.
However, in his article, Rep. Lockman chooses to call his House colleague Rep. Gattine “callous and uncaring about the plight of low-income Mainers” and drums up trouble and stirs up prejudices because Gattine is working to pass LD 1317, “An Act to Restore Services to Help Certain Noncitizens Meet their Basic Needs.” Rather than true addressing the human and economic reasons to restore basic public programs to all Maine residents, Lockman sidesteps by suggesting that monies spent on this bill would somehow result in more nursing home closings and that “residents will face the emotional trauma of being relocated further away from loved ones, all because a majority of legislators prioritize foreigners over Mainers.”
Indeed, nursing homes have been closing in Maine, and all across the country, particularly in rural areas. But the closings are NOT caused by diverting funds from these facilities to immigrants. There are a number of other factors, decidedly unrelated to funding support for immigrants, that make these businesses decide, or feel forced, to close. Here are some: First, a public shift in thinking about nursing homes has led to more unoccupied rooms, which may sound surprising, considering our rapidly aging population. Rather than going to a nursing home, more folks are aware of community options and are using other resources, including in-home care, or assisted living options, or deciding to rely on family members to step up as care-takers. Empty rooms mean fewer funds coming in to support the expenses of these businesses.
Traditionally, nursing homes have survived on very slim profit margins and small financial changes can have large impacts. For many years, they faced low reimbursements from Medicaid, as Lockman pointed out. In fact, reimbursement plans and funding mechanisms continue to be very complicated. Additionally, in 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid instituted a series of new regulations, with a five-year phase in. The requirements are stringent and expensive, costing each facility about $63,000 in the first year and $55,000 in subsequent years, regardless of their number of patients. The industry regards the new regulations as positive and beneficial to patients, but many smaller nursing facilities simply can’t swing the added costs and choose to close. Small town populations are literally dwindling. Families move away after finding their jobs gone, mills closed, and possible replacement jobs offering wages too low to live on. Suddenly, a local nursing home can find itself in a labor crunch, unable to keep doctors on call or find the nurses and support staff to keep all shifts filled 24 hours each day. The plight of the rural nursing home is very real and Lockman is absolutely right to point out how devastating this is to families and their loved ones.
However, Lockman must be called out fomenting racism rather than seeking a honest solution to this problem. It is long past time to be finding ourselves dealing with leaders who want to make us angry or fearful of newcomers, or who want to separate us with false dichotomies of “us against them,” or use innuendo to make us suspicious. This kind of thinking keeps us locked in a world of prejudice and fear, too paralyzed to envision a better future. We can and must be better than that and look for real solutions to our hard-felt problems. Immigrants can and should be part of our solution. And that’s a fact.