Senior advocates are calling on state lawmakers to preserve a program that allows nursing home residents to keep their rooms after brief absences, such as hospitalizations.

Senior advocates are calling on state lawmakers to preserve a program that allows nursing home residents to keep their rooms after brief absences, such as hospitalizations.

Both Gov. Deval Patrick and the House included no funding for the so-called bed hold program in their budget proposals for next year.

The Senate's initial budget proposal includes funding for bed holds, but could significantly cut payments nursing homes get from the program.

Bed holds were the center of a funding battle last year, when Patrick vetoed $6 million for the program from a supplemental budget. Defying the governor, lawmakers put the money back into a final version of the budget Patrick ultimately signed in the fall.

The “ping-ponging back and forth” puts vulnerable people at risk, said Bill Johnston-Walsh, state director of AARP Massachusetts.

“We had hoped after last year’s fight that we wouldn’t be fighting for it again this year,” he said.

Medicaid pays nursing homes an average of $200 a day per patient, but the money stops flowing while the resident is away, according to W. Scott Plumb, senior vice president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, which represents providers.

The bed hold program pays a much lower rate of $80.10 a day for nursing homes to hold a patient’s room for up to 10 days, Plumb said.

“We don’t like getting paid $80.10 to hold a bed, but we hold the bed because in our view, it belongs to the patient,” he said.

The Senate budget, which has yet to go before the full chamber for a vote, would change the reimbursement rate to "no less than $30 a day."

Without the bed hold program, the home receives nothing, giving some little choice but to fill a bed with another patient in order to keep funding operations, Plumb said.

Federal law says nursing homes must readmit seniors or disabled people who leave temporarily, whether for a hospital stay or to visit family. But it does not require the facility to place the patient back in the same room – just the first available spot.

Returning to an unfamiliar bed with different staff and a new roommate can be jarring and stressful for residents, especially those with dementia or others who have lived in the same room for years, Johnston-Walsh said.

“To the individual, it feels more like an eviction than a room transfer,” he said.

In vetoing the funding last year, Patrick cited an audit that found about 4,000 empty beds in nursing homes across the state.

Johnston-Walsh said he understands tough budget decisions need to be made, but “to me, it’s a rights issue for the individual.” He also said the state receives matching federal funding for the money it puts toward the bed hold program.

More than 30 state representatives sought an amendment to freeze bed hold funding at 2011 levels, but the measure did not make it into the budget the chamber passed April 24. Johnston-Walsh said he hopes to see level funding for the program at $6 million.

Plumb said it was surprising the House, traditionally a supporter of the program, bypassed it this year. He called the sum “chump change” in the state budget.

“It just seems to us cruel, frankly, and unnecessary,” he said.

Plumb said he hopes to see the Senate boost funding for bed holds.

“Our feeling is that this is a home,” he said. “What kind of a home is it if you leave if you have to go to the hospitals for two days and have to come back with a different roommate, a different staff, a different everything?”

(State House News Service material was used in this report. David Riley can be reached at 508-626-4424 or driley@wickedlocal.com.)