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$50 million infrastructure fund would be boon for some N.H. county nursing homes, but not all

Sullivan County is hoping a new round of pandemic aid will help pay for its $57 million nursing home renovation.
Sullivan County is hoping a new round of pandemic aid will help pay for its $57 million nursing home renovation.

The health and safety upgrades needed at county nursing homes are many but the tax dollars to address them are not. So, the possibility of an unexpected $50 million in pandemic aid for infrastructure projects was welcome news.

But it is also raising questions about which counties would qualify if the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee approves the funding Friday, as the Executive Council did Wednesday.

To compete for the first round of funding, counties would need to have a “shovel-ready” project that costs at least $5 million and the ability to pay for up to 40 percent of the cost themselves.

Taylor Caswell, executive director of the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery, which oversees federal pandemic aid, told the Executive Council the application will be available by July; details will be posted on the office’s website, Still unknown is how the state will award funding when it’s reviewing competing applications.

Sullivan County is particularly well positioned because it’s been working on renovating its 156-bed facility, Sullivan County Health Care, for several years, and the county delegation has approved the $57 million project.

“Being able to apply for capital funds under the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery will go a long way to determine what financing we have and how much the taxpayers have to pick up,” said Ted Purdy, nursing home administrator.

It’s a different story in Belknap County, which has a list of projects but none that are far enough along. “It’s designed to give money to some counties, but not this one,” said Debra Shackett, county administrator. She’s hoping the county will qualify for a planned second round available for much less expensive projects that are in the early stages of planning.

“I’m not giving up hope,” she said.

The $50 million fund for upgrading county nursing homes was first proposed in a House bill this session that was ultimately sent to interim study. Rep. Judy Aron, a South Acworth Republican who sponsored the bill, said it stalled in the Ways and Means Committee over questions about how a fund would be structured. This new $50 million fund accomplishes what she had hoped, she said Friday.

“I am very pleased about it,” she said. “I’m not too heartbroken the bill went to interim study because this way of doing it makes a lot of sense.”

The New Hampshire Association of Counties learned of the funding opportunity late last week and counties are still reviewing eligibility rules, said Kate Horgan, who represents the group. The funding is a boon both for taxpayers and residents who cannot afford private long-term care facilities, which can charge several thousand dollars a month.

“County nursing homes are the last line of defense in the safety net for folks in long-term care,” she said. “We take the sickest of the sick, the poorest of the poor. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. At the end of the day, if you are a constituent and we have an available bed for you, we are going to give you a bed.”

Cheshire County missed the opportunity by a year as it already renovated and expanded its 145-bed nursing home last July, and the state has indicated the new pandemic aid is for new projects. County officials did not return a message asking if they’d apply for funding. Jennifer Fish, administrator of Coos County, which has two nursing homes, said officials there haven’t had time to discuss its options.

Merrimack County has used other pandemic relief money to update its nursing home’s heating and cooling system but would also like to upgrade the home’s security, information technology, and phone systems. Like Fish, County Administrator Ross Cunningham said the county hasn’t had time to decipher the broad eligibility requirements released so far.

Strafford County has been developing plans to build a new 215-bed nursing home and use the existing 50-year-old facility for transitional housing for people moving from homelessness or insecure housing. The county has hired an architect, and the county delegation has supported the project “conceptually,” said County Administrator Ray Bower.

He said the county will apply for the federal funds but needs more details about eligibility.

“I need to get a better definition of shovel-ready,” he said. “Probably, to an extent, we are shovel-ready.”

If the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee gives the fund final approval Friday, it’s nearly certain Sullivan County will receive funding to renovate its 124-bed nursing facility, built in 1970, and its 32-bed dementia unit. The project will allow the county to improve infection control as well as its heating and cooling system, Purdy said.

In announcing his support for the initiative Wednesday, Gov. Chris Sununu called it a responsible use of federal aid and an investment in safety. Of the state’s 2,565 COVID-19 deaths, 1,164, or 45 percent, were in long-term care facilities, which includes private and county sites, according to the state’s dashboard.

“This fund will help ensure our county nursing homes have the infrastructure and capabilities to keep residents safe,” Sununu said in a statement. “By responsibly using these one-time funds for one-time investments, we are able to provide benefits to the citizens of New Hampshire for decades to come.”

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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