VALE – Nearly 200 people crowded into the Vale Senior Center on a blistering hot night Wednesday, Aug. 16, to help find a way to avoid closure of Pioneer Place, a local skilled nursing, assisted living and rehabilitation center.
In an often-emotional session moderated by Malheur Enterprise Publisher Les Zaitz, Pioneer Place officials outlined the financial woes the facility faces, answered questions from local residents, and sought input from residents about solutions.
Pioneer Place is a government entity funded through a local taxing district but by law that money can’t be used for operating expenses.
The facility has struggled with funding problems since at least 2019. Pioneer Place was hit especially hard during Covid when state restrictions forced the facility to stop accepting patients, slashing income.
“I didn’t get into this business to displace seniors.”–Corey Crimson, Pioneer Place administrator
Attending the standing-room-only session was U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Oregon, state Sen. Lynn Findley R-Vale, along with Malheur County Commissioners Jim Mendiola and Ron Jacobs. Tom Vialpando, Vale mayor, and Ontario City Councilor Ken Hart were also on hand at the meeting.
The facility needs $1.3 million just to complete needed repairs on the building, such as fixing its roof and refurbishing its kitchen.
The other challenge the facility faces is ensuring its census – the number of patients it cares for – remains at a level that makes a profit.
Corey Crismon, the administrator at Pioneer Place, delivered some good news at the beginning of the meeting, announcing Pioneer Place expects receive a $900,000 tax rebate. That infusion of cash, though, won’t solve the facility’s financial problems.
VIDEO: Pioneer Place Town Hall
Pioneer Place faces a Catch-22 with its census. For example, if Pioneer Place cared for 21 people in its skilled nursing program, the facility would be profitable. However, state rules regarding staffing set a specific number of certified nursing assistants per a certain number of patients. If the census count climbs, the number of CNAs must also jump. That, in turn, costs more money.
“Oregon has a mandate for staff of 1 to 7, or one CNA to seven residents,” said Crismon.
Finding qualified medical professionals to fill CNA slots is also difficult, he said, because of the fierce competition for jobs in the health care industry.
Another factor in the funding woes was Covid. Because of state Covid restrictions, Pioneer Place was forced to stop accepting patients, choking revenue. The Covid restrictions then forced Pioneer Place to drain its emergency fund for $300,000 and then pull $75,000 from its building fund. Pioneer Place now holds $160,000 in its reserve account.
Finally, a state bed tax added to funding problems for Pioneer Place. The tax climbed from $27 per bed in 2021 to $44 in 2023.
Crismon made it clear to the crowd he had no intention of closing Pioneer Place and at one point choked up with tears as he explained what was at stake for the seniors at the facility.
“I didn’t get into this business to displace seniors,” he said, pausing his presentation to regain his composure and applauded by the audience.
Once the session was opened for comment, there were plenty of questions.
Retired local attorney Carol Skerjanec wanted to know what the bed tax funds were used for. The bed tax revenues are allotted to the Oregon Health Authority. Findley, in response to the question, said he voted against the tax and that the OHA budget was a “black hole.”
Area resident Tina Bradfield had several questions, including what the state Medicaid pay out was and she asked why officials waited to have the meeting “when they knew they were losing money?”
“A lot of our problems can be traced back to Covid,” said John Nalivka, Pioneer Place board member.
Bradfield also asked if Pioneer Place officials sought funding from the state.
“We’ve asked the state and they don’t have any money,” said Crismon.
Nalivka said among options being considered by the board was to raise fees or expand the taxing district to include the city of Ontario.
Frank Yraguen, longtime Vale resident and retired state judge, asked if there was a good reason why the whole county wasn’t in the Pioneer Place taxing district.
Expanding the facility’s taxing district is already one plan the Pioneer Place board is considering but such a move would mean placing an initiative on the local ballot. That effort can be a lengthy process but a feasible one, officials said.
Bentz said getting financial help from the federal government was probably not possible.
“We are trying to cut budgets.” he said. “To think there will be a big bunch of money (from federal sources) is wishful thinking.”
Bentz pointed out that thousands of the Baby Boom generation were retiring daily and their needs in the future will be acute.
“This is a scary situation. The real challenge is where to find the money,” he said.
He said one idea some in Congress are proposing is to take money out of the proposed federal farm bill funding agriculture but “I am not in favor of that idea.”
One resident asked what the community could do in response to the crises at Pioneer Place. Crismon replied the facility would take donations and welcome volunteers to help.
Another individual asked if Pioneer Place applied for infrastructure grants.
“We did apply for a grant, with the border board (the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board) for $87,000 but it ended up turning into a loan instead of a grant,” he said.
Crismon told the crowd Pioneer Place was also seeking to ink contracts with the Veterans Administration and Humana Inc., a health insurance company based in Kentucky, to help boost income.
He said Pioneer Place sought money from the county more than seven times but only received about $150,000 in Covid relief funds last year which covered a month of payroll costs.
Local attorney Bob Butler, who is a partner in the Vale law firm of Butler & Looney, said big money bailouts will have to come from the government.
“You will not get more money with residents holding bake sales,” he said.
Vale resident Lucy Hutchinson asked if Pioneer Place officials had reached out to wealthy individuals – such as Bill Gates or Elon Musk – to seek help.
Crismon replied he had reached out to the foundation headed by Mackenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, but had not received a response.
Hart said he was willing to move ahead and represent the Ontario City Council regarding helping find solutions for the funding woes and he suggested that retired Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe pull together a group of community stakeholders to find a solution.
Zaitz suggested the formation of an informal group, called the Friends of Pioneer Place, where an email list of interested individuals could be generated to keep people appraised of the situation at Pioneer Place.
Pioneer Place officials ended the meeting with three goals. They plan to continue to seek grants to alleviate the funding challenges and attempt to boost the census count at the facility. Officials also plan to explore putting an initiative on the ballot to expand Pioneer Place’s heath district to include the entire county.
Bentz said the meeting was a sure sign democracy is alive and well in Vale.
“It is a local community seeing a need and stepping up to address it,” said Bentz.
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