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A worker cleans tables in the dining area at a nursing home in Battle Creek, Neb. 

The numbers make Nebraska’s nursing home challenge clear, especially for the state’s rural residents.

At least 14 nursing homes closed in Nebraska during 2019, setting a record. All the facilities except one were in rural communities, The World-Herald’s Martha Stoddard reports.

Over the past eight years, 34 nursing homes closed across the state, and all but two of the facilities were in rural areas.

Yet even as many nursing homes face serious financial challenges, the demand for their services continues to grow. As Nebraska policy-makers set their budget plans, it’s important that their priorities include the state’s Medicaid payments that help keep nursing homes in operation.

Recent Washington Post reporting told the frustrations of family members in Broken Bow, Neb., in trying to find a nursing home for Earl Kennedy. After the nursing home in Broken Bow where he was staying closed and finding that nursing homes in Ainsworth and Minden had already closed, his family made arrangements with a nursing home in Cozad.

The $152-per-day Medicaid reimbursement is short of the facility’s actual $200 per-day cost. To make up for the loss, nursing homes normally charge more for residents paying with their own money. That approach tends to work in urban areas, but in Nebraska’s rural communities, “only 35% of nursing home residents had money to pay for their own care,” the Post reported, “and in Cozad, it was less than 20%.”

“Where in the rural areas of the state are people going to have to go to get care?” Heath Boddy, president and CEO of the Nebraska Health Care Association, told The World-Herald last year. The association represents the majority of Nebraska nursing homes.

Projections from the University of Nebraska at Omaha indicate that by 2050, residents age 65 and older will make up 18.7% of the population in Nebraska’s urban counties, up from the present 14.8%. But the increase is projected to be far greater in Nebraska’s rural counties: Seniors currently make up 23.7% of the rural population, and by 2050 the figure is expected to climb to some 33.7%.

These number indicate the major escalation in nursing home demand in coming years. It’s imperative that Nebraska leaders keep their eye on this statewide concern for the long term, providing as much financial support as practically possible to meet the need.

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