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Nursing home’s future in peril

Finances in tenuous position as BWCC waits, hopes for state assistance

by Tom Coombe

Despite a fundraising campaign that has already generated about $15,000, Ely’s nursing home remains in serious financial jeopardy.

That was the message this week from Adam Masloski, executive director of the Boundary Waters Care Center.

“We’re still in a financial  predicament,” Masloski said Wednesday, a day after briefing city council members about the situation. “I believe the legislature will pass something to help nursing homes. I’m concerned if we’ll make it to that passing and taking effect.”

Last month, Masloski and the BWCC sounded an alarm, launching a private fundraising effort and stepping up efforts for state assistance after two years of significant financial losses.

A sizable reduction in occupancy coupled with a labor crunch created the financial emergency, and Masloski told council members this week that delays in state reimbursements - now 21 months behind - have exacerbated the troubles.

Masloski acknowledged that the immediate future of the facility, which is owned and operated by a non-profit organization, is at risk.

“We have nowhere else to risk as a small nursing facility,” he said. “We don’t have an Essentia or a large hospital backing us. Our revenue is what we get from our residents.”

Ely council members expressed their concerns Tuesday, with Angela Campbell questioning what might occur if BWCC is forced to close.

Masloski outlined those possibilities the following day.

“If we get to a point where we exhaust all of our funds and are unable to continue operations, we’re required to safely discharge all of our residents,” said Masloski.

That would trigger public notification of roughly 20 separate entities, including the state of Minnesota and county social services.

The BWCC would have to develop a closure plan that might take roughly 60 days to  implement.

“You’re not allowed to take in any new residents during that time and we would staff down,” said Masloski. “If we don’t get funding, in the next couple of months that would be reality.”

Area legislators including State Sen. Grant Hauschild (D) and State Rep. Roger Skraba (R) are aware and are sympathetic to the Ely facility’s plight, according to Masloski.

As state lawmakers deal with a budget that includes a nearly $18 billion surplus, additional help for nursing homes is on the table and Masloski voiced optimism that the state would take action and is hoping that Ely can scrape by until then.

“I would do anything to ensure that it keeps going,” said Masloski, who has worked at BWCC for more than a decade.

Ely officials said they are concerned about the future of the nursing home.

Council member Al Forsman called the BWCC “near and dear to our hearts.”

“One thing that wasn’t said and the community needs to think about, is the nursing home was built and sustained by the very people who are now living in it,” said Forsman. “They supported it. They tried to make sure it was here for others. Now when they need it I think we have a duty to try and keep it here.”

Mayor Heidi Omerza agreed and noted that the facility not only provides care for long-term residents, but for those in need of shorter term stays.

“There’s not just end of life care,” said Omerza.

Harold Langowski, Ely’s clerk-treasurer and operations director, noted that his grandmother needed a short-term stay and came from Hoyt Lakes to stay at the BWCC and received “exceptional care.”

“The less (nursing homes) there are, the further away people get pushed,” said Langowski.

BWCC is the only skilled nursing residence within 50  miles of Ely, with roughly 95 percent of its current residents from the Ely, Babbitt and Tower areas.  The nursing home has about 50 employees.

If not for the facility, Ely’s elderly in need of nursing home care would need to travel an hour away or more in order to find a new home.

Masloski said the Covid-19 pandemic created both budget and staffing difficulties for the nursing home, creating a budget hole that the organization has not, as yet, been able to climb out of.

While the nursing home averaged 38-39 residents prior to 2020, those numbers have tumbled and have hovered around 30 the last two years and are currently at 31.

A labor crunch has also causes BWCC to look beyond the area for both nurse and nursing assistants.

“We’re relying on traveling agency staff to fill positions,” said Masloski.

Another obstacle is the manner in which the nursing home is reimbursed by the state.

“The gap for funding has widened,” said Masloski. “It’s now 21 months. We are basically being reimbursed for what we spent 21 months ago, and that has become unsustainable for facility.”

The gap in the reimbursement has become even more troubling not only because of inflation, but the higher costs associated with contracting with agencies for outside staffing.

Nursing home lobbying groups are pushing for help which may be coming in the way of health and human services legislation under consideration in St. Paul.

On the local front, the BWCC kicked off a fundraising drive last month with a mass mailing that targeted addresses across the region.

Some help has arrived, with donations now reaching about $15,000 and money “trickling in here or there,” Masloski said.

Donations are tax deductible and the BWCC will accept contributions from anyone interested in assisting.

Checks may be sent to: Boundary Waters Care Center, 200 West Conan Street, Ely, MN, 55731.

More help is likely needed to bridge the gap as BWCC waits for further state assistance.

“I think we owe it to our community and our residents that it stays there long term for them and for the future of our community,” said Forsman.

Masloski noted that one regional nursing home - in Grand Marais - is publicly owned but at least for now there are no requests or proposals for a similar venture here.

“That’s not something that happens over night,” said Masloski.

The BWCC instead waits, and officials acknowledge the future is uncertain.

“I will turn over any rock I can to keep this place operating,” said Masloski.

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