The Portage Co. Health Care Cntr Committee meeting on Nov. 30. (Microsoft Teams)

First of three committees sound off on potential referendum, or sale, of health care center

*This story will be updated

By Brandi Makuski

A Portage Co. committee on Thursday voted to hold off on any decision to pursue the sale of the county’s nursing home until a spring referendum could take place, but it’s not immediately clear how much weight that vote holds.

Following about an hour of discussion on the future of the facility, the Portage Co. Health Care Center Committee on Nov. 30 voted 4-1 that no action would be taken on the potential sale of the healthcare center until a referendum vote, tentatively planned for April, has occurred.

The potential sale of the embattled facility was initially intended to be a closed-session discussion, spearheaded by County Executive John Pavelski, although Pavelski requested the item be removed from the agenda entirely until he could provide more information on the possible sale.

But Supervisor Vinnie Miresse (D1), who chairs the committee, declined that request, instead placing it on the agenda for public discussion.

The facility has been losing money for years, but following a commitment by a previous County Board to help cover the deficit and construct a new building, Portage Co. residents approved a 2022 referendum increasing taxes up to $4.5 million annually for 20 years.

Those funds were deemed inadequate earlier this year, forcing county leaders to consider another referendum in April 2024 asking voters for another $3.5 million, totaling $8 million annually for 20 years. The county has until January to decide whether the referendum would be placed on the spring ballot.

Marcia McDonald, director of the center, spoke about her desire for transparency and honesty on all of the available options, saying the direction of the elder healthcare industry has seen some “major changes” in her eight years at the helm, including the increase in state and federal regulations, and the rise in in-home care. It’s all had an impact on the number of patients staying at the health care center, she said.

“We’ve gone gradually from the 100s to the 60s and most recently, we consider it a great day when we hit 30,” McDonald said. “But the consistent message in that is, that [the care] has always been excellent.”

The main challenge, she said, is “supply and demand,” and with a daily cost of care that exceeds $600 per patient, it’s a tough obstacle to overcome.

Of the potential options to address the fiscal shortfall, Pavelski said either selling the facility to a private party or moving ahead to the spring referendum were the two most viable.

“With all due respect, Portage County does not run a health care center economically,” Pavelski told the Committee, adding that another referendum would only subsidize the facility for an average of 32 patients, and none of those beds were earmarked for Portage Co. residents.

“Our overhead is excessively high,” he added.

The COVID-19 pandemic “drastically changed” the healthcare industry, opening the door to a wave of mobile and remote providers and decreasing the necessity for in-patient residential care, he said.

Of the 30 or so residents who attended the Nov. 30 meeting, both in-person and online, many disagreed with the potential sale, arguing that caring for the elderly should be considered a higher priority for the county.

Stevens Point resident Nancy Roppe said several of her family members had received care at the PCHHC, calling the facility “critical to the quality of life in this community and there is no other five-star facility in Portage County.”

Roppe added, “We passed two, not one, but two, referendums where voters overwhelmingly said we’ll pay more taxes because this institution is so important.”

Portage Co. Board Chairman Al Haga said the Committee’s vote likely doesn’t carry much weight on the issue, as it will go before two additional committees before hitting the County Board floor in December.

“It’ll go before the Finance Committee, and Space and Properties [Committee], as well,” Haga said. “Any one of those that says ‘yes’ gets it to the [County] Board.”

Haga also said that Pavelski doesn’t need approval from any committee to continue talking with interested parties on a possible sale.

“If and when he’s ready, there will be a presentation and a resolution, possibly with an offer that would follow it,” Haga said. “So anyone who thinks they’re stopping us from our duty of looking at all our options and doing what’s best for all of the taxpayers in our county, they’re wrong.”