Rehabing the rehab: Portland's Barron Center at a turning point

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PORTLAND — With a staffing shortage and an abundance of private-care competitors, the Mathew I. & Evelyn A. Barron Center is at a crossroads.

“We tend to take on folks other facilities do not take on,” Administrator Ryan Francis said April 23 about the center’s traditional role of serving patients without private insurance through long-term care and therapies.

Unique in that it is municipally owned and operated, the Brighton Avenue center is now facing challenges filling its beds and finding staff.

A source of some patient referrals was lost when Maine Medical Center bought Saint Joseph’s Rehabilitation and Residence, 1133 Washington Ave., from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

The rehab center has 121 beds, according to a May 31, 2017, press release from MMC.

Last year, the center closed its 25-bed skilled-care community, reducing full capacity to about 195 beds. The number of Barron Center patients had declined to 160, but is now up to 176, Francis said.

The Barron Center still offers physical, occupational and speech therapies through physician referrals, as required by Medicare and MaineCare, Francis said. 

Yet fewer people are becoming certified nursing assistants, and the Barron Center pay scale is not as good as some private-care facilities.

“It is hard work,” Francis said. “There is so much that comes with being a CNA.”

City Manager Jon Jennings has introduced a $247 million fiscal year 2019 municipal budget that eliminates 19.6 unfilled positions at the center, including 12.6 CNAs.

In his letter introducing the budget, Jennings said signing bonuses, job training programs and tuition reimbursement are among incentives offered to increase staffing.

The Barron Center has exclusively accepted Medicare and Medicaid, the federal health insurance coverages for elderly and low-income patients, respectively, since those plans were created more than 50 years ago. In Maine, MaineCare serves as the Medicaid program.

Francis said the Barron Center is now looking at accepting private health-care plans, a process that starts with seeing whether the private companies are accepting new providers.

If so, the city must also make sure the private plans work with the care offered.

Known as the Barron Center since 1982, the hospital traces a heritage back for almost 200 years to Portland Street, where the city set up an almshouse to care for indigent residents.

In the early 20th century, care was shifted out to Brighton Avenue and into what is now the Loring House apartments. In 1946, Portland City Hospital was established under the direction of Matthew Barron; his wife, Evelyn, was a nurse who became the hospital matron.

While moving toward accepting private health insurance plans for patients, Francis said the Barron Center will also look at how patients are referred. The referral process may open new sources and give potential patients a more complete idea of what the facility has to offer.

“In the past, the Barron Center has been a good revenue generator for the city,” Francis said.

Its model of care also requires evaluation, Francis noted, as other care centers are moving toward private rooms for patients. The city Planning Board has approved expansion plans at The Cedars, a care facility on Ocean Avenue that will convert most living arrangements to private rooms.

The Barron Center currently has a dozen private rooms.

Francis said the Barron Center will also review the scope of its mental health services, which is needed as the population ages.

“We do take on a number of folks who have mental health issues; we want to increase our competency,” he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Administrator Ryan Francis on April 23 said Portland is looking at ways to increase patient and staffing levels at the Barron Center, which could include accepting private insurance coverage.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.