The Massachusetts Senate debated a proposed $42.7 billion annual state budget Tuesday as nursing home advocates, college students and others crowded Statehouse corridors appealing to legislators for additional funding.
Senators were expected to consider hundreds of amendments to the spending plan over several days. The budget will then have to be reconciled with a version passed earlier by the House.
As lawmakers filed into the chamber to begin the session, nursing home administrators, staff, residents in wheelchairs and family members, numbering in the hundreds, gathered to call attention to the plight of many of the facilities around the state.
The Massachusetts Nursing Care Association said nearly 30 nursing homes have closed recently, while many others are in similar danger. Five nursing homes owned by New Jersey-based Skyline Healthcare in southeastern Massachusetts announced plans to close last month amid financial problems, leaving about 300 residents and their families in search of care.
Cape Cod resident Mary Ann DeMello brought her husband, Frank DeMello, a retired schoolteacher who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's several years ago and is now at a nursing home in Wareham.
In an interview, DeMello described the staff at the home as "very caring people, even though they are understaffed and underfinanced." The reductions have been so severe, she said, that there are no recreational activities for residents on the weekends and staff members are often unable to promptly address her husband's needs because they're caring for too many patients at once.
"It's very emotional," DeMello said, fighting back tears. "I still want the best for him."
The association says nearly seven in 10 nursing home residents rely on the state's Medicaid program for their care, but the state's formula for reimbursing the homes is based on 2007 costs, when more patients were still able to pay for care on their own. The result, the group says, is a funding gap of $38 per patient, per day.
"You can't keep nursing home rates at 2007 levels," said Democratic Sen. Harriette Chandler, of Worcester. "We don't live at 2007 levels."
The House added $35 million in rate increases for nursing homes, while the Senate's budget includes $15 million in emergency funding for the hardest hit facilities. Advocates are pressing the Senate to approve a series of amendments, including several proposed by Senate Republican leader Bruce Tarr, aimed at stabilizing the facilities, which care for about 150,000 people in Massachusetts.
Higher education was also emerging as a flashpoint in budget talks, with the Senate proposing a one-year freeze on tuition and fees charged by the University of Massachusetts system. University officials have warned such a freeze would result in major budget cuts.
A small group of UMass students has been staging daily sit-ins since last week, demanding that legislators increase the level of funding for the system. A budget amendment proposed by Democratic Sen. Jo Comerford, of Northampton, would add $10.2 million for UMass to stave off potential cuts.
Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, joined other Democrats on Tuesday in calling for a "robust discussion" of possible tax changes to raise additional revenue for underfunded programs.
Legislative leaders have said they would be open to considering new taxes at a later point in the current two-year session, and the Senate recently formed a task force to study ways of reforming the state's tax code.
The Senate budget does contain two smaller tax proposals, one targeting pharmaceutical companies that sell opioid medications in Massachusetts, the other an excise tax on e-cigarettes and vaping supplies.