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First hospice facility in Aroostook nears final stretch to open

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The Aroostook House of Comfort is getting ready to open as northern Maine’s first hospice facility.  

The House of Comfort on Green Hill Drive is slated to open in late April or early May, as construction wraps on an extensive renovation of the former MBNA call center, said Christine Turner, RN, director of hospice and palliative care at VNA Home Health Hospice.

“The benefit of having a facility like this is having staff who are experts in end-of-life management,” Turner said during a tour of the facility. “It can improve end-of-life care in a community.”

The House of Comfort will be hosting an open house on April 7 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Turner said.

VNA, a home-based nursing service that is part of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, will be managing the facility, while the nonprofit Aroostook Hospice Foundation maintains its ownership. VNA currently provides home-based hospice services in Aroostook County.

The House of Comfort will have 6 rooms for patients and is forecast to serve more than 60 patients per year.

“It’s essentially a hospice-hospital, but it’s a home-like environment because most people say they want to die at home,” Turner said. “If they have symptoms they can’t manage at home, we want to keep this environment as homelike as we possibly can.”

The House of Comfort’s patient rooms each will be equipped with a kitchen, bathroom and space for family to spend the night. The facility also will have common areas, a chapel, an outdoor garden and seating areas, and walking trails.

Hospice facilities are not residences in the sense of nursing homes or memory care facilities dedicated to patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia, Turner said.

Patients receiving hospice care are diagnosed with a life expectancy of 6 months or less and are seeking a “comfort approach” to care, Turner said. “It’ll be acute symptomatic patients having issue with pain, agitation, nausea and vomiting. They’re going to come here and get those symptoms under control.”

The House of Comfort’s respite care can be for patients who are receiving hospice care at home and need to come into the facility for a short time while family caregivers are unavailable, Turner said.

“If the family needs to travel somewhere, or go to a wedding, or just needs a break, those patients could come in for up to 5 days. We would take care of them and then they would go back home.”

Turner said that hospice care can sometimes get complicated by Medicare insurance rules and that Medicare’s reimbursement often does not cover the full cost of care. For instance, a terminally-ill patient may qualify for hospice, enter the facility and then see improved symptoms and be deemed by Medicare not to need hospice anymore, Turner said. In those cases, Turner said, the House of Comfort is aiming to have a financial assistance program that can cover reimbursement gaps from Medicare.

“We hope to in the future, with the assistance of the foundation, have an endowment to cover room and board for when they’re not eligible,” Turner said. “Philanthropy is what has got us to this point with the foundation buying the building and starting construction. We will continue to rely on philanthropy to make this successful.”

The Aroostook House of Comfort will be Maine’s fourth dedicated hospice facility, with the others located in Auburn, Rockport and Scarborough.

The hospice house has its roots in an organizing effort started in 2010 by local residents including Richard Duncan and Michael MacPherson. After successful fundraising, the Aroostook Hospice Foundation purchased the MBNA property in 2015 and has been working on design and renovation ever since.

The total cost to create the House of Comfort is “a tad north of $3 million,” said MacPherson in a previous interview. The facility is backed by $2.8 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development agency, as well as $400,000 raised through the Presque Isle Rotary Club and a $100,000 grant from the Davis Family Foundation.

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