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Investing in Long-term Care is Investing in Rural Oklahoma

Investing in Long-term Care is Investing in Rural Oklahoma

 

By Care Providers Oklahoma President and CEO Steven Buck

I was born in Mangum and spent my formative years in Altus. Although I live in Oklahoma City today, I feel a deep connection to Oklahoma’s rural communities. I also feel a deep sadness as I watch those communities fight for their survival, and in some cases be hollowed out as they lose major employers and economic opportunity. The impending loss of the Ardmore Michelin plant and its 1400+ jobs is another body blow, not just to that community, but all of us who want to see rural Oklahoma survive and thrive.

I know our elected officials feel this way as well. Governor Stitt and the Legislature’s willingness to offer Panasonic over $700 million to locate a new facility in rural Oklahoma speaks to the importance they place on job recruitment and investment outside of the metro areas. And while that effort, unfortunately, was unsuccessful, the good news is that there are “shovel-ready” investments that can be made to support Oklahoma businesses today, mainly in the field of long-term care.

As the Baby Boomer generation grows older, there is an urgent need to invest in jobs like skilled nursing professionals, who can ensure these men and women age with dignity. To put the current challenge in perspective, about 455,000 Oklahomans were over the age of 60 in the year 2000. In 2022, over 653,000 Oklahomans were over 60, and that number continues to rise. As these Oklahomans hit their 80s and 90s (and beyond), many will need the help available in residential assisted living facilities or around-the-clock medical care that is offered in nursing homes.

In the Ardmore region alone, there are over a dozen skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities. Most, if not all, of them are hiring multiple positions ranging from entry level jobs in hospitality to positions as certified nursing aids (CNAs) and registered nurses (RNs). These are good jobs that can, with effort and time, take an entry-level worker doing laundry and cleaning through a career ladder that can include nursing and administration jobs that can pay wages well above Oklahoma’s median income. Anyone curious about entering that field – in Ardmore or elsewhere – can learn more at our careers portal at carecareersok.com.

Unfortunately, many long-term care facilities are finding these jobs harder and harder to fill. As a state, we simply have not prioritized creating a talent pipeline for nursing or adequately funded our nursing facilities to create that pipeline on their own. In fact, when it comes to Medicaid recipients, the state reimburses nursing homes (and similar facilities for people with intellectual disabilities) at a rate below what it costs to provide daily care. At a time when our rural communities are looking for an economic foothold, that underinvestment is puzzling and frustrating.

Moving forward, I am hoping that we can change this dynamic both as individuals and as Oklahomans acting collectively. If you are reading this as a resident of rural Oklahoma and wondering about your ability to find gainful and rewarding employment, please consider long-term care and skilled nursing as a potential fit. The demand is strong; the potential for career advancement is there; and the work is important and rewarding. For others, including policy makers, who want to support both a healthy economy and quality-of-life in rural Oklahoma, please speak up about the importance of adequately funding long-term care facilities. That starts by raising the Medicaid reimbursement rate to a level that is at least equal to the cost of care.

On a personal note, my father lived his final days in a rural nursing home in Mangum, where I was born. His decision to spend his last days in a community he called home would not have been possible without that facility, and it made all the difference to him and his loved ones. If we want our rural communities to be places where we can live, work, raise a family and – yes, even grow old and die in – we need to invest in the facilities and the people who make that possible. As we enter 2024, that sounds like a good New Year’s resolution to me.

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