Following through on a promise
It’s a scenario that has become all too familiar in this valley: aging citizens forced to move away from the community because of the lack of an adequate care facility.Here’s another familiar scene: local politicians voicing strong support for such a facility – but the talk never quite translates into action.They’re talking again, and this time it appears all the right factors might be in place: the demographics, the right parcel of land, and a willing group of public and private interests who want to make an assisted living facility a reality in Eagle. The Eagle County commissioners recently reviewed a new study that confirmed a “reasonable demand” for care facilities for the county’s older residents. Consultant Elizabeth Borden of the Boulder-based Highland Group, said there currently exists a “reasonable demand” for 17 to 22 assisted living units; and 30-45 skilled nursing facility beds within the next few years. Borden is a principal of a company that specializes in market research and feasibility studies for all forms of senior citizen housing.Those figures from the preliminary study were intriguing enough to prompt the commissioners to authorize an additional mail survey to confirm the numbers.The senior citizens who are keeping an eye on the situation reacted to the latest development with a mixture of optimism and skepticism.”I hope it happens,” says Bert Bratton, a resident of the Golden Eagle Senior Housing complex in Eagle, “It’s going to be a while. It is absolutely needed. It would be wonderful not to have to leave the community.”Others are more skeptical.
“It’s pretty much the same comments we’ve been hearing for six or seven years … when they’re running for office, they will promise you anything,” observed another senior citizen, who asked not to be identified.In fact, the county has been through this routine before. About five years ago, the county commissioners announced their intent to construct an assisted living facility adjacent to the Golden Eagle housing complex. So certain were the commissioners of the project that they ordered the community gardens that occupied some unused space in the Golden Eagle senior housing complex to be dismantled. The county also paid for blueprints, and an architect’s model of the proposed facility.However, the county staff became nervous about the financial feasibility of the project. A little closer look at the proposal led to the conclusion that the intended site was too small; the number of senior citizens needing the facility too few; and the operations costs too great. The commissioners were also concerned that the facility could not accommodate enough Medicaid patients. The project stalled.That didn’t mean the demand wasn’t still being felt, however. Last February, long-time valley resident Ken Wilson had to move his ailing wife, Pat, to a nursing home in Glenwood Springs. He went to the local newspapers to tell about his plight, and to do some very public questioning of county spending priorities.Two weeks later, newly elected County Commissioner Peter Runyon urged his fellow commissioners to take another look at the demand for care facilities locally. They readily agreed to revisit the issue.New numbers, new placeWhat makes the project appear more likely to happen at this point of time is a number of factors.Borden’s study projects that the number of senior citizens in the county (ages 55 and older) will double in the time period between 2000 and 2009 (see chart).
Meanwhile, Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs and Vail Valley Medical Center in Vail are anticipating on breaking ground next spring on a shared medical facility at the Eagle Ranch subdivision in Eagle that would include a medical clinic in the first phase; and an assisted living facility and skilled nursing facility in subsequent phases.”A facility that is able to provide a high level of skilled care is the best solution to allowing Eagle County residents to remain nearby,” Borden told the commissioners at a recent work session. The study assumes such care facilities would offer a mix of units that would include Medicare, Medicaid, private pay, and insurance contracts.The new medical campus, which will be located on a 14 acre site west of the Eagle Ranch commercial district, would provide both the kinds of space, and with the medical center, the kind of resources that would make the facility work.Borden cautioned the commissioners that assisted living facilities in mountain communities tend to struggle financially, typically because they are too big, and the patients are too few. She urged the local community to start with a smaller project, with potential for adding on as needed.”Before spending a lot of money, it is worth it to confirm some of the numbers,” she noted. The cost of the facility would probably be somewhere in the $8 million range.County Commissioner Arn Menconi said the county could be interested in becoming a financing partner in the project (which would likely be run as a private business).”The Board has always shown great willingness to refine, develop, and participate in the project,” he said. However, Menconi also noted that $8 million is about two years worth of the county’s capital improvement fund, and suggested that a public – private sector partnership was the most likely avenue to realizing the project.Stan Anderson, administrator for Vail Valley Medical Center, said the hospitals are very interested in providing the facility; but probably would not want to be the operators.”If the stud shows this needs to move sooner rather than later, we’re both (hospitals) interested,” he said, adding that the facility would “mesh nicely” with the medical campus.
Eagle Town Manager Willy Powell said the proper zoning is in place to allow the facility to proceed. He indicated the Town Board supports the concept.”Such a facility is part of what makes Eagle a good community,” said Powell.The commissioners voiced an interest in further refining the study numbers.Johnnette Phillips, a retired county commissioner who works closely with the senior citizens, says she was encouraged by the talk at the meetings.”I feel comfortable that we are moving ahead,” she said. The county is also talking about adding some additional units to the Golden Eagle complex.However, Virginia Rose, who will turn 85 years old next month, and who has heard talk of new care facilities for years, wasn’t quite sold.”It doesn’t seem very imminent …. I hope I never need it,” she said.