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20 long-term care facilities in Washington could close over the next 18 months

At least 20 nursing homes are expected to close in Washington state over the next 18 months without help from the state or federal government.

EVERETT, Wash — Around 1,600 long-term care facilities are expected to close across the country over the next 18 months. At least 20 of those closures will be in Washington state, unless there is a drastic change.

The long-term care industry has been in trouble for years because the cost of caring for elderly patients on Medicaid is far higher than the amount the state reimburses. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the industry was losing $117 million a year. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, those losses doubled. 

Washington Health Care Association President Robin Dale described the situation in one word: "Dire."

The cost of sterile gloves, surgical masks, and other PPE is up more than 300% during the pandemic. Overtime pay and "hero rates" for nursing home staff are also driving up costs. 

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At the same time, people are pulling their loved ones out of long-term care homes and rethinking how to care for their elderly family members, partially due to what happened at Kirkland's Life Care Center where more than 35 people died during a COVID-19 outbreak.

Last January, Washington state nursing home providers had an average occupancy of 77.2%. Thirteen months later, that number plummeted 16 points to 61.2%. Dale said the situation is completely unsustainable.

"It's kept me up for many nights and COVID has only made it worse," he said.

The first closure is expected to be announced Tuesday. Dale knows the pain that will follow because he's seen it before.

"We had a community close in Longview. There was a gentleman who was in his eighties and came to visit his wife every day. Because of that closure, the wife was going to have to move 45 minutes away. He was no longer going to be able to make that visit on a daily basis. It's heartbreaking," he said.

Federal relief money has dried up and Dale said lawmakers in Olympia haven't done anything of substance to address the issue. It's setting the stage for what could be a very difficult year ahead.   

"The legislature needs to understand that the shortfalls in skilled nursing facilities are real and need to be addressed," Dale said. "If they're not addressed, we're going to continue to have closures just like we have over the past four years. It's devastating."