AUGUSTA — A new state commission begins work Wednesday on finding ways to expand Maine’s long-term care workforce and strengthen an elder-care system that is facing a growing demand from an aging population.

Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, and Rep. Jessica Fay, D-Raymond, sponsored the legislation that created the commission and said Tuesday that Maine is at a tipping point.

“We’ve been hearing for years that Maine has the nation’s oldest population,” Herbig said. “As more and more of our residents enter their golden years and beyond, their need for care increases. We’ve passed a critical stage in this state where our long-term care workforce just isn’t meeting the demand.”

Fay said recent demographic data for Maine show that 23 percent of the state’s population is older than 65, and that the population of Mainers aged 18 to 24 dropped by 8 percent from 2010 to 2018.

“We need to go no further than these numbers to understand that our workforce is shrinking, but our population is not,” Fay said. “This means we need to shift the way we think about work and our community.”

She said many Mainers who are eligible for in-home care, which is more affordable than nursing home or assisted-living care, can’t get it. Fay also said many Mainers are taking on the second job of caring for a loved one to keep them at home because of the shortage of caregivers.

“It shouldn’t be like this – and it doesn’t have to be,” Fay said. “There are job openings for workers that absolutely need to be filled. Our parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents need access to long-term care services to stay safe and healthy.”

Some have said the situation in Maine, with the nation’s highest median age of 44.6 years, is “catastrophic.” The state’s problem has drawn national media attention and in August was featured in a report by the Washington Post.

Herbig and Fay, who will sit on the 15-member commission, said it will meet throughout the fall and early winter before bringing a set of recommendations to the Legislature for review in January.

“This commission is going to look specifically at that topic (long-term care workforce)” Herbig said. The focus will be how to grow and retain workers in the field and remove what Herbig calls the “barriers in the pipeline.”

The commission will include members of the long-term care system in Maine, those who manage those systems, insurance industry officials, lawmakers and other nonprofit service providers.

The effort will be similar to one lawmakers undertook to address the state’s critical shortage of nurses in the health care industry, which led to several reforms that included additional nursing courses and improved facilities for nursing students in Maine’s university and community college systems among other programs.

“Our hope is a lot of great things can happen when you have experts in their field who are working either as a direct-care worker providing that service, you work in health insurance or the Maine Legislature,” Herbig said. “We are hoping to get all those folks at the table to really see what the true barriers are.”

She and Kristen Overton, the chief operating officer at Spectrum Generations, a direct-care nonprofit, said that while pay is certainly one issue, it may not be the only issue for many direct-care workers.

“(Having a) workforce is not just all about wages at this point, given how competitive the job market is,” Herbig said.

Overton said training and education and upward mobility in the field all contribute to getting workers interested in the field and staying with it.

“For some people, this is where their heart is and this is truly what they want to do, and for other people, it is about career advancement,” Overton said.

The commission’s first meeting will be at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in room 202 of the Burton Cross Office Building, next door to the State House in Augusta.


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