Dozens attend forum on future of Centre Crest as leaders eye shift to nonprofit status

Growing up in Centre County, Tor Michaels and his friends used to joke about being in Centre Crest one day.

As he grew older, Michaels, chief of staff for Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, began to think it wasn’t as much of a joke and realized that they valued the safety net that the county-owned nursing facility provides.

“It was a reaffirmation of assurance that we hold pretty dear where I come from,” Michaels said.

He was one of many speakers that came before the Board of Commissioners at the final scheduled Centre Crest public hearing Wednesday, focusing on the potential change of the nursing home to a public nonprofit. The almost 75 attendees in the Courthouse Annex in Bellefonte represented far more than the previous four forums combined.

Representatives from the consulting firm Complete HealthCare Resources Eastern were in attendance to present the same report to the group that was made to the board Tuesday that shows a change to the nonprofit would be financially viable. The numbers, based on increased Medicaid reimbursements and decreased costs in employee retirement plans and health care, would put the facility more than $500,000 in the black in the first year.

Jayson Harpster questioned why some of these changes can’t be instituted today. He understands the county reimbursement system for Medicaid was locked in 2006 and the county can’t increase that funding, but he said some other changes to cut costs can be made right away.

“That it’s there and part of the social safety net is an incredible comfort,” he said.

AFSCME council representative Barry Pearce also spoke, saying he was there not as a union rep but a taxpayer. He told the board he is appalled they are thinking of going down this road.

He cited other county expenses such as a new judge, new prison and new 911 system that haven’t been a problem for the taxpayers to bankroll and he doesn’t see contributing money to Centre Crest funding as an issue.

“When I voted this last term, I voted for county commissioners, and in my mind not one of you had an agenda in your mind for Centre Crest,” he said.

Commissioner Michael Pipe acknowledged that this change wasn’t part of his election platform, but the discussion needs to happen because of the nursing home’s shortfall. He added that there wasn’t discussion to privatize any of the other services mentioned because that isn’t an option.

Pipe reiterated that no decision has been made, and the board is far from making a vote. He has given himself a personal deadline of July 1 to make up his mind and has been visiting nonprofit and county-owned nursing homes in the meantime.

“If I was going to say we’re going to a nonprofit and I was 100 percent sure of that, I wouldn’t be driving around to all these nursing homes,” he said.

Though the crowd seemed to overwhelmingly oppose the potential change, former commissioner John Saylor said he always thought it was the way to go.

He has witnessed the issue of unfair reimbursements since his time on the board in the 1970s, and said if everything works out financially it may be the right move.

“In my own thoughts, I always felt that this decision would have to be made, and it would take a county board of commissioners with the courage to make that decision,” he said.

The attendees were also left with homework by former commissioner Jon Eich. He told them that if the state legislation for the reimbursements was changed, the financial aspect wouldn’t be a major issue. He urged them to contact local legislators.

“We need to tell our legislators to get rid of this regulation,” Eich said. “ If they get rid of it, there’s no need for any of this.”

Michaels said Conklin has never sponsored or co-sponsored any legislation to do that, but would be willing to take calls and possibly move in that direction.

But Pipe has said there are other counties who are being reimbursed at much higher rates with bigger voting power and Centre County most likely wouldn’t have the votes to pass a law.

This was the last scheduled public hearing, but Pipe and Chairman Steve Dershem both said the public would have more chances to voice opinions either at meetings or possibly another round of forums.