Tight budget leaves Pioneers' homes beds empty

Posted: Wednesday, March 27, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A recent $400,000 renovation at the Pioneers' Home in Palmer added 20 new rooms, but the beds are likely to remain empty due to a lack of funding for additional staff, state officials said.

''We're maxed out,'' said Mary Ann Harmon, administrator for the Palmer home.

The home has a waiting list, but Harmon said she can't put residents in the empty rooms without overwhelming her staff, which includes about 90 nurses and others who care for more than 50 residents.

The home could accept independent residents -- those who can basically take care of themselves except for emergencies -- but none of the 28 people on the waiting list fall into that category, she said.

''We're striving for quality of care, and we don't want to jeopardize that,'' she said.

Staffing is an ongoing problem for the state-run homes, which include six facilities statewide, said Jim Kohn, director of the state Division of Alaska Longevity Programs.

Of the 600 beds available statewide, about 110 are empty because of staffing shortages caused by a lack of funding, he said.

The remodeling at Palmer, which cost about $413,000, was done so the home could accept more people with acute care needs, Kohn said.

It included installing fire-resistant carpeting, putting dampers in the ventilation system to keep smoke from spreading as well as building a bigger bathroom for assisted bathing and a smaller dining room for residents with dementia who can be overwhelmed by larger spaces.

Officials decided to proceed with the project although the division didn't have funds for staffing.

The division estimates that it needs another $1.5 million a year to fully staff the Palmer home, Kohn said. That money would pay for 36 new employees, including about 25 nurses, he said.

Kohn cites a combination of issues for the staffing crunch.

The biggest problem, he said, is that most residents require much more care than in the past.

A decade ago, many Pioneers' Home residents required little assistance. Today, many have Alzheimer's or related dementia or medical problems that require constant care, he said. The average age of those admitted to the homes is 83.

As residents' needs have increased so have employees' salaries and other expenses, and the budget hasn't kept pace, Kohn said. Since 1997, the annual operating budget for the Pioneers' homes has risen by about $4 million -- from just more than $30 million to about $34 million last year.

The division has been trying since last year to get a $5.3 million budget increase through the Legislature to pay for extra staffing, Kohn said, but the bill has stalled.

Kohn said he doesn't know if the request for more funding will be approved this year. If it isn't, the beds at the homes will remain empty, he said.

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