An ‘Historic Commitment’: Stakeholders Praise Budget Committee’s Decision To Boost Money For Nursing Homes, Low-Income Dental Services

For years low-income people in Wisconsin have had difficulty finding a dentist, and nursing homes have had staffing shortages and financial woes that prompted some to close.

Lawmakers are hoping to address the situation by increasing government reimbursement for these health care services as part of the state’s two-year budget.

The Legislature’s budget writing committee voted Tuesday evening to increase state funding for nursing homes and salaries for some health care workers, a move Republican Sen. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, said is aimed at making sure vulnerable communities in Wisconsin get good care.

“We are making sure that the entities will be there to take care of the people that need to be taken care of,” Felzkowski said Tuesday.

Wisconsin’s growing elderly population has increased the need for long-term care services. But financial pressures and staffing shortages have prompted 42 nursing homes in the state to close since 2016, John Sauer, president and CEO of LeadingAge Wisconsin, told WPR.

Other facilities have significantly downsized. Between January and May of this year, about 500 nursing home beds were no longer in use and were not licensed to be used.

“That’s the equivalent of eight nursing facilities closing,” said Sauer.  

Under the motion approved by the Joint Finance Committee, the state would increase Medicaid reimbursement rates for skilled nursing and intermediate care facilities, boosting spending by $252 million over the next two years. The committee also approved increases for long-term care and personal care workers’ wages.

Increasing worker pay was a recommendation of a task force assembled by Gov. Tony Evers. Some long-term care facilities have already given increases to staff, hoping the Legislature and governor are going to come through with funding increases once the budget is finalized, Sauer said.

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“This could not come at a better time for the long-term care provider community because people, they were desperate,” Sauer said. “They were battle weary because of what they’ve been through in the last 15 months, but even before that to attract and retain staff. These dollars are going to be helpful if they actually come to fruition.”

Under the budget plan, dental services for low-income patients would also be reimbursed at a higher rate by the state. Medicaid rates for dental services would be boosted by 40 percent.

The Wisconsin Dental Association said the decision by the budget writing committee is the state’s first potential significant investment in oral health in two decades.

“The committee’s historic commitment will go a long way in maintaining and expanding the current safety net of providers and will help more people get care,” Wisconsin Dental Association president Paula Crum said in a statement Wednesday.

WPR reported on the lack of dental care in some parts of the state in 2018 and examined not only funding issues but alternative ways of providing dental care.

A bill by Felzkowski to allow the licensure of dental therapists to address the dental shortage was recently discussed at a public hearing.  

The Wisconsin Dental Association, which has opposed similar proposals in the past, now says getting more people quality oral health care will require a multipronged approach, utilizing a variety of solutions.

“The WDA is never going to support dental therapy,” Crum told WPR. “But we do know that it can help access to dental services in certain areas of our state.”

The full Legislature is expected to vote on the 2021-23 state budget the last week of June.