Vale nursing home seeks big infusion of cash from county

Pioneer Place, a care facility in Vale, wants the county to earmark funds to help the facility weather tight financial times. (The Enterprise/FILE)

VALE – Pioneer Place, the publicly-owned nursing home in Vale, wants an emergency infusion of nearly $1 million from the county as it struggles with the impacts of the Covid pandemic.

The facility approached the Malheur County Court last month, seeking $900,000 but the commissioners took no action on the request. Pioneer Place is the only nursing home operating in Malheur County.

Records show the nursing home suffered a significant drop in clients last year. To cover losses, Pioneer Place drained its emergency fund for $300,000 and took $75,000 from a building fund, according to a report it shared with the commissioners.

“While the staff has worked diligently and oftentimes, tirelessly, to minimize the negative impact on our residents at Pioneer Place, there has been a substantial increase in our monthly operating costs as both the demand for and cost of necessary supplies such as gloves and PPE (personal protective equipment) have increased significantly,” the Pioneer Place Board wrote in a letter to the county court.

The emergency fund consisted of savings made by the facility over time, said John Nalivka, a Pioneer Place board member.

“We were able to put some (money) back over the previous year because we knew that at some point minimum wage costs were going to be higher,” said Nalivka.

Nalivka said the board wants to replace the $75,000 lifted from the building fund.

“When we take money out of it we’d like to think we can put it back in,” said Nalivka.

Records show while the assisted living census – the number of patients processed into the facility – remained steady, the number of people in the nursing home – or skilled nursing – dropped well below what is needed to cover costs.

In January, the skilled nursing census was 14.

Capacity at Pioneer Place is about 29 people in the assisted living portion of the facility and 26 in the skilled nursing portion.

Nalivka said the goal of the facility is to have 23 or 24 patients on the skilled nursing side to break even.

The census on the skilled nursing side recently jumped up.

Now there are 20 patients on the skilled nursing category at the facility. There are currently 25 assisted living residents.

Until August, the facility was holding its own in terms of expenses but omicron cases began to climb at the end of last summer.

“Our infection rate went up. By state regulations you have to quarantine and pretty much shut everything down,” said Nalivka.

Under state guidelines, when an assisted living facility records a positive Covid infection among employees or residents, new admissions are banned.

“You are told immediately that there will be no more residents,” said Nalivka.

If no new residents can be admitted, and some existing residents depart the facility, the funding stream diminishes.

“The way you pay the bills in a nursing home is Medicare. If you lose a patient who is on Medicare, and that payment goes away, it’s a pretty good sum of money. So, we had those two things working against us,” said Nalivka.

Pioneer Place was hit off and on by Covid beginning in August all the way through January, according to public records. Each time there was a Covid infection, the facility stopped processing new clients.

In January, for example, 14 Pioneer Place staff members and seven residents tested positive for Covid, according to a report submitted to the commissioners

While the facility weathered Covid, its employee costs also jumped.

“We gave everyone a raise but part of that was the minimum wage went up. So, when it goes up you have to raise everyone,” said Nalivka.

The minimum wage in Oregon for companies in non-urban counties climbed to $12 an hour last July 1.

Nalivka said the board considered cutting staff but discarded the idea for several reasons.

“The trouble is if you get your census back up you need all those staff. In health care particularly, if you cut your staff you will play hell getting them back. You won’t get them back,” said Nalivka.

Pioneer Place also purchased a used van last year to transport residents or patients to places such as Saint Alphonsus Medical Center Ontario, he said.

“Our other van was just about to the end of the road. We don’t want to have a van transporting people sitting on the side of the highway broke down,” he said.

Nalivka said the van cost “right around $40,000.”

Another challenge with recruiting employees is Vale’s location, he said.

Nalivka said Pioneer Place used federal emergency relief money – passed through the state Department of Human Services – to buy items such as personal protective equipment.

He said the overall financial situation at the facility improved recently.

“Our census is back up and we’ve hired a couple of CNAs (certified nursing assistants). We are in relatively good shape in terms of right now,” he said.

Nalivka said officials will consider if they still need the $900,000 at the next board meeting set for March 15 at 3 p.m. at the Vale Senior Center.

“We will take a very close look to see where we are at. If things continue to go the way they have been going that would certainly suggest we are getting in a lot better shape financially than we were the previous four months,” said Nalivka.

Dan Joyce, Malheur County judge, said the court wants more documentation from Pioneer Place regarding its finances before deciding to provide county funding.

In another development, the Pioneer Place board fired former facility administrator Mark Mahoney in February, Nalivka said. Mahoney stepped into the administrator position in October.

“We didn’t feel like he was qualified to be able to handle the job. We felt we needed someone else,” said Nalivka.

He said the board will begin searching for a new administrator in the next few weeks.

Pioneer Place is a government entity providing skilled nursing, assisted living and rehabilitation services.

A five-member board oversees Pioneer Place.

The facility is funded by a local taxing district but by law the money can’t be used for operating expenses.

Pioneer Place employs 70 to 80 people with a payroll of about $2.4 million.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at pat@malheur enterprise.com.

Previous coverage:

Summit at Pioneer Place prompts state promise

Pioneer Place will seek financial help from voters in November

EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM – Available for $5 a month. Subscribe to the digital service of the Enterprise and get the very best in local journalism. We report with care, attention to accuracy, and an unwavering devotion to fairness. Get the kind of news you’ve been looking for – day in and day out from the Enterprise.