Walz pledges National Guard help for nursing homes

A sign outside a building reads "Heroes work here"
Mother of Mercy, an assisted living facility in Albany, Minn., has endured staffing challenges brought on by COVID-19.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News 2020

Updated: 6:12 p.m.

Gov. Tim Walz said Monday he's activating the National Guard to create skilled-nursing response teams to help short-staffed nursing homes. Walz also wants to spend $50 million in federal funding to help long-term care facilities hire and retain staff. 

“Our long-term care facilities are facing an all-hands-on-deck moment, and that’s why we are taking unprecedented action to support skilled nursing workers, residents and patients,” Walz said in a statement. “I pledge to do whatever it takes to help Minnesota’s long-term care community get through this challenging time.” 

More than 22,000 older and vulnerable Minnesotans receive care at roughly 365 skilled-nursing facilities across the state, according to the governor’s office.

Walz said 400 National Guard members will start training as certified nursing assistants and temporary nursing aides over the next seven days. The state Health Department will respond to requests from facilities that need help, and teams will be sent for up to three weeks at a time.

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Gayle Kvenvold, president and CEO LeadingAge Minnesota, called the response from the National Guard a “lifeline for many, particularly rural, nursing homes, if they can call upon a response team in the event that they simply don't have enough staff to safely provide care in their settings and keep their doors open."

The $50 million would come from unspent federal COVID-19 relief funds and needs the approval of a legislative commission. Grants are expected to be distributed next month.

"We are facing unprecedented, record-level workforce shortages in long-term care communities across our state,” Patti Cullen, President and CEO of Care Providers of Minnesota said in a release from Walz’s office.

The announcement came as Minnesota Senate Republicans called on spending $150 to $200 million to help nursing homes in a special legislative session, if they can reach an agreement with Walz to call lawmakers back to St. Paul.  

In a letter to Walz Monday, Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller said the aid would help long-term care providers retain and recruit staff and cut taxes and paperwork. The money would come from unspent federal COVID-19 relief funds.

The main agenda item for a special session would still be bonus pay for front-line pandemic workers, but Republicans and Democrats have been unable to agree on who should get how much. Drought relief for farmers is another issue that could be considered

Walz has said he won't call a special session if Republicans continue to threaten to fire state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, but there is nothing in Miller's letter about that issue. 

MPR News’ Peter Cox added reporting to this story.