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Column: Kontos wrong on county’s health care center

By Nancy Roppe

A 10-minute phone call. A few minutes of scrolling on Facebook. That’s all it would have taken to dispel the ignorance and misinformation in Dan Kontos’ recent opinion column regarding the Portage County Health Care Center.

Evidently, getting the facts straight would have taken too much effort so instead, a collection of factually deficient opinions are dropped like a giant collective stink bomb. This steaming pile of excrement fouls the political atmosphere poisons public perception and needs to be cleaned up as quickly as possible before it’s tracked all over the place.

For a columnist to extol the virtues of actual journalists and yet to fail miserably at emulating their example is infuriating. To suggest “decisions are made without all of the background information,” and then to espouse opinions that fit that bill to a tee is confounding. Decry the Health Care Center Committee and the County Board for being lazy can kickers.

No matter how divisive the issue, no matter how unpleasant the conversation might be, I’ve never encountered a County Board Supervisor who was unwilling to take my call or listen to what I had to say and God knows I have been at odds with several elected officials over the years.

Mr. Kontos could have tapped the knowledge base of any of the 25 supervisors on this issue. The County Executive, the Finance Director, or the Health Care Center Administrator could have provided the needed insight. There are endless avenues to get pertinent, accurate information in order to develop informed opinions but it takes a bit of work. Here’s a novel idea, how about actually attending a Health Care Center Committee meeting?

If talking to public servants isn’t your thing, the minutes of every meeting of the Health Care Center Committee are published on the county website. Every meeting agenda and information packet is published there as well but one must endeavor to look it up rather than expect it to be provided on a silver platter.

But if you still expect fact-gathering will be done for you, guess what? It has. Over 240 members of the Save the Portage County Health Care Center Facebook Group keep up to date on what’s going on with the facility. Every agenda is posted in this forum before committee meetings, the meetings are live-streamed with highlights recapped soon afterward. So there’s that avenue too. Basically, there’s no excuse for promoting sloppy viewpoints that seek only to incite rather than to inform.

On November 6, 2018, voters approved a referendum allowing Portage County to exceed the levy limit for fiscal years 2019 through 2022 for the purpose of paying a portion of the cost to operate the health care center. Immediately following the successful referendum, the Health Center Care Committee set to work.

Five committee members, strong, yet pragmatic advocates and stewards of our tax dollars, began the arduous process of planning for the future of the facility. At the same time, they were tasked with understanding and helping to cope with the day-to-day challenges of an aging building with crumbling infrastructure and everything else that comes with running a skilled nursing facility.

They were making steady progress—but remember, county committees typically meet only once a month for about an hour. They can discuss only what is on the agenda and only take action on an item if the agenda states “for discussion and possible action.”

It may seem like nothing is getting done or at least not as quickly as we might like but the committee chair doesn’t have a magic wand nor can they act unilaterally. Meeting only 12 times a year means the wheels of progress can grind slowly.

Even when decisions are made they often must progress to other committees for further action; Executive Operations, Finance, Space and Properties, just name a few. So in order for anything to move forward, it must advance through these various committees and ultimately to the County Board itself.

It is prudent and efficient to hold joint sessions of various committees and that has been done periodically in the years since the passage of the referendum. Sometimes, however, due to scheduling conflicts in the event, a quorum is not achieved, a committee meeting might be canceled so another month might go by giving the impression that nothing is happening.

It takes some time to get your ducks in a row and get the ball rolling in the right direction and so it wasn’t until July of 2019, that the committee began the process of working with Clifton, Larsen, Allen (CLA) to customize a strategic planning analysis for a skilled nursing/assisted living facility.

The following month, the committee approved a proposal from CLA to conduct a market analysis and to build a business plan for the health care center with options for the future. This was needed because the last such study done in 2013, commonly known as the Schenck Report was out of date considering the rapidly changing environment in the skilled nursing industry.

It took some months for all of this information to be compiled so, at the same time, the committee explored the option of collaboration and regionalization with North Central Health Care (NCHC). The idea of potentially joining this multi-county provider of skilled nursing and other services was attractive and warranted further investigation.

Certainly, there were advantages to the prospect of shared services and leveraging economies of scale but there was no guarantee that NCHC, after doing their due diligence would extend an invitation to Portage County to join the consortium. A joint meeting with CLA, NCHC, the County Executive, Finance, and Human Resources departments to efficiently discuss collaboration was scheduled for February 2020.

Then the pandemic hit bringing with it all the chaos of trying to stop the spread of a deadly pathogen that had decimated other nursing homes across the country. Add in the scramble for PPE and for testing supplies, add in attending to the emotional impact of isolation on residents, and add in the valid concerns from family members. Try moving an agenda at lightning speed under those circumstances.

Yet, the Health Care Center never faltered. Strict infection control procedures were put in place and to the great credit of the staff, the facility has remained COVID-19 free, as well as state inspection citation free all while continuing to maintain its Center for Medicare Services(CMS) 5-star overall rating.

Yes, we have an old building in need of substantial repair or preferably replacement and no, we don’t offer all the bells and whistles or amenities private facilities offer—but I defy you to find another facility, private or otherwise that can boast a record like ours.

We are lucky and privileged to have the Portage County Health Care Center in our community, period. We should be getting down on our knees and thanking everyone associated with the facility for the heroes they truly are instead of lobbing morale-crushing diatribes in their direction.

Progress toward a solution was happening in fits and starts but the pandemic clearly clobbered that process. To add insult to injury, in May 2020, the membership of the committee was inexplicably changed. Two members were not reappointed and thus two new members came on board.

Anyone who knows anything about the health care center knows you don’t come up to speed on its long and winding history of events overnight. So, this reshuffling of the committee makeup was yet another unexpected blow. Over several meetings, it became clear the newbie members had their work cut out for them and it took some time before they were on board with the direction the previous committee had embarked upon.

Finally, in September 2020, the long-awaited long-range strategic plan was ready for unveiling. It validated some things we already knew, highlighted several competitive advantages we already enjoy, provided an updated market analysis, and recommended three strategic options for moving forward.

The missing piece of the puzzle now was whether to “go it on our own,” or pursue regionalization with NCHC. In March 2021, while waiting for NCHC to respond, the committee decided to pursue moving forward with a Request for Proposal (RFP) process to retain a qualified architect to develop a master site plan for a new health care center facility. Additionally, the committee discussed a possible timeline for a 2022 referendum.

In April 2021, the NCHC decision came. Collaboration and regionalization with NCHC would not be possible.

You may remember the County did a survey in the lead-up to the November 2018 referendum. That survey showed significant support for a county-owned, county-operated skilled nursing facility. It only makes sense that a new survey is needed to gauge current public sentiment. Thus, the County Executive announced a referendum study.

Is the public still with us for the long haul? Will you as a taxpayer continue to put your money where your mouth is? We’re talking about a substantial investment in a new building along with the funds to maintain ongoing operations. It’s another big ask and the survey, although short and simple will in fact provide a meaningful answer.

With respect to the private sector filling the gap in providing skilled nursing services, let’s not forget the difference between us and them. They are strictly profit-driven. If making a profit requires only one aide in the building overnight, that’s what the private sector will provide. If making a profit means residents spend endless hours lying in an unchanged diaper, it is what it is. If making profit results in the family of a Medicaid resident being forced to find other accommodations for a loved one because a private pay resident is more profitable, oh well, off you go.

Yes, by law, a private sector entity must accept a Medicaid patient but they are not obligated to keep that patient. They can and do work diligently to get those patients transferred out as quickly as possible. It is not in their financial interest to keep a Medicaid patient considering the abysmal Medicaid reimbursement rate when they can fill that bed with a private pay patient. Five-star care isn’t profitable in today’s environment. If you’re satisfied with one- or two-star care, by all means, go with the private sector.

And don’t be fooled into thinking the Health Care Center Committee needlessly frittered away $1.4 million dollars a year. By my count, we’re two years into a four-year commitment. Yes, we just changed the clocks, but 2021 isn’t over and 2022 is in the future.

Although the referendum allowed for $1.4 million dollars a year, the Health Care Center Committee demonstrated fiscal responsibility and restraint, made a number of very hard unpopular decisions aimed at saving money, and has not taken the full amount allowed by the referendum. In fact, a little over $920,000 was tapped in 2019 and slightly over $895,000 in 2020. That’s on the county website too if you care to look.

So, Mr. Kontos, you’re just plain wrong. The Health Care Center Committee has moved the needle on this issue and under far less than ideal circumstances. The County Board can’t take action unless and until a resolution is before them.

No, this time, there will be no more kicking of the can. If the voters are willing to stand steadfast as they did in November of 2018, we are on our way to a gleaming new health care facility benefiting all county residents and others for years to come.

Yes, we’re returning to another referendum because it’s a very complex issue and it is fundamentally right and only fair that the taxpayers have their say because it’s the taxpayers who will be footing the bill.

Perhaps you’d rather have 25 slow-walking can kickers make that decision for you, but I’m willing to bet public sentiment is with those of us who believe the Portage County Health Care Center provides vital services at a level of excellence that is not available elsewhere. It’s a legacy worth protecting and worth funding with our tax dollars.

You can disagree but I put my faith in the teachings of a shepherd that tell me it’s the right thing to do.

Nancy Roppe is a lifelong Stevens Point resident, co-founder of the Save the Portage County Health Care Center Facebook page, local activist, ardent supporter of the health care center.

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