Haste in Juneau brought needless worry to residents in Pioneers’ Home

The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Residents of Alaska’s Pioneers’ Homes, and the family members of those residents, went through quite a bit of turmoil this month when news spread that the state Senate’s budget included a reduction that would have led to the closure of the homes in Palmer and Juneau on July 1.

The Fairbanks home was to be spared in this budget action, but the decision by the state Senate almost certainly added some uncertainty to that home’s residents also.

In the end, it turned out to be a sloppy and apparently unintentional action by the Senate that upset our senior Alaskans, people who don’t need to be exposed to such loose behavior by our elected officials in Juneau.

The news of the Senate’s proposed cut of $6.5 million to the Department of Health and Social Services spread rapidly. It amounted to about 10 percent of the Pioneers’ Homes total budget, enough to cause the closure of the two homes, Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson said. The department began notifying residents of the potential closures and soon began receiving many phone calls of concern.

Sen. Peter Micciche, the Senate majority leader, said the reduction was intended to be unallocated reduction to the Department of Health and Social Services as a whole even though it was somehow a part of the Pioneers’ Home budget. He noted the department could have moved money around to keep the homes operating and complained that the ruckus was a political move by opponents of the Senate budget in the House and in the administration of Gov. Bill Walker.

It didn’t take long for the situation to turn around completely.

Gov. Walker on Wednesday sent a letter to staff and residents of the Pioneers’ Homes, saying he will do “everything within my power to assure that no Pioneer Home will be closed while I am governor.” He noted his own connection to the homes in that his father — “a World War II veteran who fought the war on Alaskan soil as a member of the Alaska Scouts” — lived the last six years of his life at the Pioneers’ Home in Palmer.

The governor’s letter came on the day the state Senate approved a “Sense of the Senate,” a little-used procedure, to express full support for the Pioneers’ Homes. The brief statement began, “It is the sense of the Senate that our cherished seniors and honorable veterans be rest assured that all Pioneers’ Homes will remain open and fully operational after final action in the FY18 budget. The Senate feels that Pioneers’ Home residents have earned secure, quality housing and deserve to have the respect and deference of the Senate clearly communicated.”

The statement went on to specify the original intent of the budget language was for the financial reduction to be spread “throughout all other areas” of the Department of Health and Social Services.

The department operates Pioneers’ Homes in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau, Palmer, Sitka and Ketchikan. The Fairbanks home was the first to open (1967). The Palmer home is also a federally certified veterans home. Together, the facilities are home to more than 450 residents, whose average age in 2014 was 86.5. The homes offer levels of care, including for Alzheimer’s disease.

These homes serve a vital function, one becoming increasingly in demand as the number of older Alaskans steadily rises. The state is at or near the top of the list among the states in the number of older residents as a percentage of the total population. The percentage keeps rising.

This entire episode was unfortunate. The positive is residents of the Pioneers’ Homes now have a written commitment from the governor and the Senate that the homes will remain open even as the state looks for ways to dig out from the budget crisis.

The safety and security of the Pioneers’ Homes residents is something that all should be able to agree on.

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