An emergency stipend program meant to address the staffing crisis at New Hampshire's long-term care facilities amid the coronavirus pandemic lapsed at the end of last week.
But advocates say the need for the stipends is still acute, as facilities across the state struggle to hire and retain the workers they need to adequately care for their residents.
“I just feel like our workforce is atrophying right now at the worst possible time,” said New Hampshire Health Care Association President Brendan Williams, whose group represents the state's long-term care providers. “It's kind of like the well is dry.”
Williams said the $300 weekly payments offered through the Long Term Care Stabilization Program, which sunset last week, were crucial to helping facilities retain nursing and other staff.
The program was designed to maintain staffing levels at nursing homes and other congregate care facilities, where cases and deaths from COVID-19 have been especially high. More than 80 percent of COVID-related deaths in New Hampshire have been associated with long-term care settings, according to data published by state health officials.
While only a few New Hampshire long-term care facilities are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks at this time, Williams said the sector's staffing crisis remains severe. Maintaining enough nurses and support staff was a challenge even before COVID-19, he said, but the pandemic has only made retention — not to mention recruiting and training new employees — even more difficult.
“You know, there are wage enhancements for liquor store workers,” Williams said, pointing to other emergency wage enhancement orders issued by Sununu that remain in effect at this time. “There are wage enhancements for those who are swabbing out the bathrooms at Hampton Beach, but there’s no wage enhancements for licensed nursing assistants or dietary folks who are working at nursing homes.”
The program was administered out of New Hampshire Employment Security, and when it first launched Sununu said it could end up costing the state up to $30 million a month. But Sununu also said his administration was seeking a waiver to cover the costs with federal money.
“We have the cash and liquidity to move forward at about 30 million a month for the next two and a half months or so," Sununu said in April. "And once the waiver is approved, we can backfill with those federal funds."
Initially, the program was set to run through the end of June, but at that point Sununu reauthorized it for an additional month. In his order extending the stipend program through the end of July, the governor stated "enhanced unemployment benefits provided by the CARES Act are scheduled to continue until July 31, 2020, which necessitates an extension of the Program until that time."
Sununu recently authorized an additional $100 million in emergency funding for New Hampshire’s long-term care sector, but he has not indicated whether the stipends will come back.