Public meeting scheduled on Aug. 3 to discuss religious organization taking over health care center
By Brandi Makuski
County officials say they are considering a big change for the future of the Portage Co. Health Care Center.
Portage Co. Executive Patty Dreier has proposed a public/private semi-partnership to secure the future of the county’s 100-bed skilled nursing facility, which has for years been draining county resources and is in need of extensive upgrades.
In a proposed arrangement between Portage Co. and the Sisters of St. Joseph Convent, the county would fund and construct a new health care center on a parcel of land donated by the convent on its Maria St. property — then hand the operations over to a religious nonprofit organization.
“The proposal includes taking the next step to learn more,” said Dreier, who added many specifics have not yet been finalized. “I think it’s worth at least exploring the possibility.”
Dreier said due to the timeline proposed by representatives of the convent’s nonprofit organization, the cost of the new proposed health care facility would need to be included in the 2017 budget process, and noted there’s “some urgency” for the county to give final approval to the project.
“The project is to invest in our future of the health care center and Portage County that will secure jobs and a health care center service for the long term future in partnership with others,” Drier said. “We’re not giving up on serving our elders. It’s a capital project, it doesn’t mean there’s money associated with it yet, but it lays out a vision.”
The project has not yet reached the stage of conceptual renderings — much less a financial breakdown or implications for long-term county employees — but Jerry Walters, chairman of the county’s health care committee, said he already believes the proposal is the best option. He’s planned a public meeting at the Lincoln Center on Aug. 3 to explain the county’s options to the public.
“It’s a discussion-only meeting to separate the fiction from the facts, cuz [sic] there’s a lot of fiction out there, and it’s not beneficial,” said Walters, who added public comment will “absolutely” be taken and was a central theme to the meeting.
“It’s time to squelch the naysayers and the ones who make up their own stories,” Walters added.
The meeting will include a PowerPoint presentation outlining the options for the future of the health care center — which include selling the current building and/or selling the county’s highly prized Medicare-eligible beds — and will include information from multiple county departments, he said.
County Chairman Phil Idsvoog said he’s not happy with the lack of solid information surrounding the project, but believes the end result would be a feasible option — for both county taxpayers and an increasing number of aging residents in need of the health care center’s services.
“I don’t think this is a particularly bad idea, and I’ll tell you why,” Idsvoog said. “We can afford to build a new health care center, what we can’t do is operationally fund it; it’s not sustainable. Quite frankly, in my opinion, the whole senior care ought to be a state initiative.”
Idsvoog pointed out the county health care center is not a mandated service, and it “can no longer afford to stay in this business” because it doesn’t operate in the black. The new center, if approved, will be constructed by the county at a cost of an initial investment of about $10 million, but run by two nonprofit organizations — Presbyterian and Catholic groups from Milwaukee and Minnesota — associated with the St. Joseph Convent.
“If Portage County gets involved in this, no matter what the rhetoric may be around it, the nonprofit organization is going to run it; Portage County is not going to run it,” Idsvoog said. “We may have a voice on a board, but we don’t do the hiring or firing; that’s going to be their operation.”
Current county employees at the health care center will need to re-apply for positions at the new center, but Idsvoog said it was an “investment in an economic development” for the entire county, and would likely bring additional jobs to the area.
According to Walters, the convent is already planning to construct its own continuing care facility on its property next spring even if the county opts to not move forward with a new health care center. If the county does approve the construction, that facility would be constructed next door to the convent’s new structure.
“I’m only one opinion, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say this would be a great place to invest our money and our beds here,” Walters said. “Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to invest money into this building for skilled nursing and take the burden off of the taxpayer. This has got to be a business decision, not a personal one.”
The public meeting will be held at 5:30 PM on Wed., Aug. 3 at the Lincoln Center, 1519 Water Street. The public is welcome to attend.