Alaska Pioneer Homes escape state budget cuts, for now

"The Prospector" statue stands in front of the Sitka Pioneers Home entrance, which was under repair Sept. 20, 2016. The homes reduced admissions as budgets were cut. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)
“The Prospector” statue stands in front of the Sitka Pioneers Home entrance, which was under repair Sept. 20, 2016. The homes reduced admissions as budgets were cut. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

When the Alaska Legislature convenes later this month, it will consider a budget that makes no further cuts to Alaska’s Pioneer Homes. Final decisions are months away.

But Gov. Bill Walker’s spending plan would help level the senior-care program’s funding after several years of reductions.

Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan’s heard a lot from his constituents about cutbacks at Alaska Pioneer Homes. And he understands their importance, from personal experience.

“My mother was a tenant for over five years. And I know the good that Pioneer Homes do,” he said.

His mom, former Alaska First Lady Neva Egan, was a lot like many in the six homes, in Southeast and the Railbelt.

“She had dementia and she was always very confused. And the folks here at the Juneau Pioneer Home facility were just incredible folks,” he said.

Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan addresses a conference in 2014 in Juneau. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Egan, a Democrat representing about half of Southeast, is happy to see the governor plans no more cuts.

Walker’s operating plan calls for spending about $51 million in state money during the fiscal year beginning in July. That’s a slight increase over the current budget year, which itself was a small boost from the previous one.

Pioneer Homes Division Director Vickie Wilson said they lost capacity because of  budget reductions.

“No program wanted to be cut, but we all felt that we were doing our share. But it did result in having a lower number of beds available that we could provide care in,” she said.

Learn about assisted living at Alaska Pioneer Homes.

One way to look at it is the total number of residents. That dropped close to 10 percent over most of the past three years, ending in the fall.

Another way is how quickly beds are filled when residents die or move.

In the 2015 fiscal year, about 97 percent had new occupants. But the following year, it was only about 83 percent.

Wilson said that’s because Pioneer Homes spend about 80 percent of their budget on staff who tend to residents’ medical needs and provide them with meals and other essentials.

“Many positions, we had no funding for. So we’ve lost many of our staff through the cuts that we had,” she said.

Staff losses, many through attrition, have slowed admissions at the homes, in Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Anchorage, Palmer and Fairbanks.

The active waiting list, for those ready to enter any of the facilities, is more than 650. An inactive, placeholder list is eight times as long. Wilson estimates about three-quarters of those on the active list need the highest level of care, which requires more staff.

Learn about life at the Sitka Pioneer Home.

She said open positions are being filled, just not as fast as they used to.

“They are being held longer. But that could be a month to six weeks,” she said. “Not turning around and hiring tomorrow. And it allows us to be able to manage.”

There’s no guarantee the governor’s Pioneer Homes budget will remain untouched as it works its way through the Legislature.

Sen. Egan said he’ll be among those pushing for the funding.

“I hope the heck it does. I hope it makes it,” he said.

And has Egan signed up and added his name to the waiting list?

“Oh, absolutely. I signed up on my 65th birthday,” he said, admitting his wife, Linda, took care of the paperwork. He added he hopes he doesn’t need go to into a home.

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