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Eye On Boise

Senate panel endorses bonding plan to replace deteriorating nursing home at State Hospital South

The Senate State Affairs Committee has heartily endorsed plans to bond to build a new $35 million skilled nursing facility on the State Hospital South campus to replace a four-story, 1930s-era structure that now houses 29 elderly and disabled patients with severe mental or physical disabilities and behavioral issues including violence.

Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, said the patients housed in the facility are among the state’s most vulnerable. “These are folks that typically don’t have any family members to take care of them, they don’t have any money, and they have severe mental or physical disabilities,” Bair told the committee; they also typically have been removed from assisted living or retirement facilities due to their conditions.

The current building, Bair said, “has some severe deficiencies.” Plumbing and electrical systems are deficient; elevators work “on a good day,” and the building lacks such basic facilities as a cafeteria – meaning all food for the residents must be carted in from another building 200 yards away, in all weather. The plan is to replace it with a facility that meets standards for a safe medical facility housing this type of patients.

The bonding plan, which would go through the Idaho State Building Authority, would use the per-bed expenditures for the patients in the facility, which fall under the Medicaid program, to cover the bond payments; that means the federal government would cover 71 percent of the costs for the 30-year bond. Bair said the bonding plan was developed because the state’s Permanent Building Fund doesn’t have the $35 million to cover the project.

Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said, “Being the Senate appointee on the Permanent Building Fund, I really appreciate this. … We have $35 million a year to spread over a $300 million deficit (in building maintenance and alteration needs). The good senator is right, we don’t have the money that we would love to have to build this. We have toured this facility, and it is in dire need of demolishment, I mean, it’s just, it’s a pretty bad facility. I think the way that they’re funding this is a really, really unique idea and a good idea, and the bond payments don’t come out of the Permanent Building Fund, which is even a better idea.” That fund already is covering bond payments for structures like state parking garages, he said, which reduces the amount that can go to annual building maintenance and alteration needs.

Hagedorn moved to pass SCR 140 and send it to the full Senate with a “really do pass recommendation.” Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously. There would be no impact on the coming year’s budget; the bond payments wouldn’t begin until the following year.

Tracy Sessions, who was administrator of the facility for nine years until her retirement last June, but has returned to work on this project, told the committee that typically 20 percent of the patients housed in the facility are veterans, and they’ve typically gotten letters from the Veterans Administration saying they can’t go on the V.A. campus without a police escort.

“So not only are they elderly and have a mental illness, some of them have served our country and done well,” she said, “and we need to make sure that we have a safe place for them to be.”

She said, “We can’t always control our patients’ behavior, but we have got to control the environment for safety.”

The new facility would open with 36 beds; that way, it could house more patients, but still operate with the current staffing level. The increased number of patients would bring in additional Medicaid funds to cover the bond payments. The new facility would have room to expand to 59 beds.

Sessions told the senators, “We just ask for your support so we can continue to serve those that we have and build the capacity to serve more as our citizens age.”

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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