A grassroots committee is demanding that Blaine County stop negotiations with Pocatello-based Safe Haven Health Care to provide skilled nursing, claiming the county has no legal authority to make decisions regarding the Blaine Manor care facility in Hailey.
A written statement from Ketchum resident Donna Alfs states that the Committee to Save Blaine Manor was formed six weeks ago, when a group of concerned citizens circulated a petition asking the county commissioners to reconsider the decision to contract with Safe Haven to take over operations of Blaine Manor.
The petition was presented to commissioners at a public meeting on April 9. At the time, Alfs said the group had collected 585 signatures over four days.
Now, the committee has hired Ketchum attorney Jim Laski, who sent a letter to county commissioners Tuesday saying he believes the county does not have the legal authority to transfer Blaine Manor’s operations and assets—including a sought-after Medicare and Medicaid certification—to Safe Haven.
“The county’s authority to pursue the transaction is at best in question and more likely non-existent,” the letter states.
Laski said Blaine Manor was originally operated as part of the Blaine County Medical Center, which was governed by a county hospital board. He said this board was separate from one formed by an agreement between Blaine County and Sun Valley that combined the operation of the Blaine County Medical Center and Moritz Hospital in 1991.
Laski said the joint board formed by the agreement was dissolved in 1996, as part of the agreement to have St. Luke’s build and operate a new hospital.
He said that while the joint board was terminated, the county hospital board governing the Blaine County Medical Center—and thus, Blaine Manor—was never dissolved, meaning that board retains control over the Hailey facility, not the county.
Blaine County Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tim Graves sent a written response to Laski on Wednesday that disputes Laski’s contentions.
“Blaine Manor is not a county hospital, and Blaine Manor is not run by a hospital board,” he wrote. “The county hospital and hospital board were terminated by action of the voters in 1996.”
Graves said Blaine Manor is governed by the Blaine Manor board, which was created by the Board of County Commissioners in 2005. The board’s bylaws state that the board derives its authority from Blaine County, but is not a county hospital board.
“The Board of County Commissioners has the authority over Blaine Manor,” Graves said. “The decision to negotiate a service agreement with Safe Haven was made after an exhaustive, transparent process that was designed to find the best alternative for providing skilled nursing in Blaine County.”
Graves suggested a meeting with Laski, his clients and county representatives to “discuss the legal and practical ramifications of the litigation you have threatened.”
Laski has already asked state legislators Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, and Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, to request that the state attorney general’s office give an opinion on the matter.
Pence said on Thursday that she and Stennett discussed the matter and submitted the request, asking the attorney general’s office to expedite the opinion.
“It is a last minute thing,” she said, adding that the office stated it would release an opinion within a week.
Pence said she and Stennett were remaining neutral on the issue and simply responded to constituents’ requests.
County Commissioner Larry Schoen said in an interview Wednesday that he received the letter with “deep frustration, and also very deep concern.”
“It’s unclear to me what the goals are of the people who are behind this,” he said. “I have deep, deep concern about the goals, and what I am most concerned about are the consequences here.”
Schoen said he would be willing to meet with the group behind the letter—the “Committee to Save Blaine Manor” and Alfs were not named in the Laski letter itself—and attempt to address their concerns. However, he said the committee’s news release contained statements that were inaccurate and “irresponsible.”
“I think that people have the right to say what they want in a communication like this, but I find it to contain untrue statements [and] mischaracterizations,” he said.
The news release reiterates another point Alfs has made in previous public meetings—that the county commissioners did not listen to the public when making their decision about skilled nursing.
“Yes, the input to the [county commissioners] from the public was not loud enough because people are busy with their lives,” Alfs said in the release. “More importantly, they never believed the [county commissioners] would ever choose Safe Haven for a multitude of reasons which can be researched at length on the Internet.”
Alfs said she was referring to the one-star Medicare rating that was given to the Safe Haven skilled-nursing facility in Pocatello.
Schoen said the county held more than two dozen public hearings on skilled-nursing care between January 2012 and March 2013, meetings covered by the Idaho Mountain Express.
“If anything, the people behind this letter themselves have been guilty of not listening to what the county has been saying for years, that it wants to get out of skilled nursing,” he said.
Schoen said he hopes the letter and subsequent action would not impact the county’s negotiations with Safe Haven. Schoen said that if those talks cease, Blaine Manor could simply close down at the end of September, without any alternative for patient care.
“This board cares very deeply about patient care at Blaine Manor and does not want to see any disruption of their care,” he said. “The county intends to move forward with Safe Haven, and this letter won’t change that.”
Safe Haven CEO Scott Burpee said he thinks the threatened legal action seems like a “stalling tactic,” but that his plan will go forward.
“I am not sure how much this really pertains to us,” he said. “We never asked the county for anything all along. We were invited.”
Burpee said the core element of his project—a new nursing facility on the north side of Bellevue—recently got final approval from the Bellevue Planning and Zoning Commission, and the committee’s action will not impact his timetable.
“We’re going ahead,” he said. “Whoever is involved here, I understand they have some issues, but I can’t understand why people would not want to see the Blaine Manor building replaced by a brand-new facility.”
Linda Haavik, vice-chair of the Blaine Manor board, said the board is aware of the letter but the Blaine Manor board is not involved with the Committee to Save Blaine Manor.
Haavik said the board has not met since receiving the letter and does not have a unified response to the issue.
Kathleen Eder, executive director of the Croy Canyon Ranch Foundation, said her organization is not involved with the Committee to Save Blaine Manor. The foundation has a goal of building a tiered-care facility near Hailey.
“We told them we couldn’t get involved,” she said. “We are still moving on.”
Eder said that she and campaign chair Anita McCann have been attending meetings with Safe Haven and the county to ensure their concerns are addressed in the eventual contract.
Meanwhile, Alfs is attempting to solicit donations for legal fees. The committee has opened an account for donations at the D. L. Evans branch in Hailey.
Laski refers to the committee as a “not for profit corporation” in his letter, and Alfs refers to the account as a “nonprofit” account. However, the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office reported on Wednesday that the committee is not registered as a nonprofit organization. A subsequent web search revealed the same.
The latest threatened legal action is only the most recent part of a lengthy debate about the future of senior care in Blaine County. For more on the process behind the commissioners’ decision to contract with Safe Haven, search “Wutz skilled nursing” on our homepage, www.mtexpress.com.
Kate Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org