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Will Martha and Mary survive the cutback?

POULSBO — It’s been helping the old, the young and just about everyone in between for almost 111 years, but whether Martha and Mary Lutheran Services will be around to continue this rich tradition in the future is unknown.

The Washington State 2002 budget has taken the form of a black cloud over the Poulsbo facility and has the potential to bring the non-profit business’ tradition of caring to a premature end.

Due to a long-running economic slump, the Legislature has a $1.6 billion shortfall in this year’s budget, but it may need to help balance it on the backs of those that can least support it — the elderly. Drastic cuts are planned across the board for long-term care facilities throughout the state. While the $71 million reduction this year will affect some 300 centers across the state, none would feel the Legislative knife so deeply as Martha and Mary.

Most recent estimates put fiscal cuts of state-supported health care activities at the Lutheran services center at $1.1 million.

Although the reduction is significant, representing approximately one-fifteenth of the organization’s annual operating budget, they could be devastating.

“Our existence, as the community knows Martha and Mary, would be in jeopardy,” administrator Chad Solvie remarked. “We’re going to try to keep doing what we’ve been doing for the community — it’s just that our backs are against the wall.”

The main jolt of the budget issue comes from the fact that over 70 percent of the center’s residents are considered low-income and are reliant on state-supported Medicaid, said Executive Director Denney Austin. Without the assistance, the overwhelming majority of these seniors could not afford to stay at Martha and Mary.

Where would the 133 state-supported residents go? No one seems to have an adequate answer.

What is known is that the loss of some $100,000 each month could very well bring about the collapse of services offered to the other 57 of the center’s 190 Alzheimer’s, dementia, rehabilitation and long-term care residents, who do not rely solely on Medicaid.

Even so, the remaining 30 percent of the residents could not shoulder the burden of the facility’s operating costs by any stretch of the imagination, Solvie pointed out. Martha and Mary raised rates for that group at the beginning of the year and isn’t planning to increase them again any time soon.

As for the Lutheran services center implementing a private rate policy for all residents, Austin merely shook his head.

“We could never switch to all private,” he said, adding that such a change would go against the very concept and ideals that Martha and Mary was founded on in 1891. Originally an orphanage, the Lutheran services center branched out over the years to support Poulsbo’s senior population.

“If we have to reduce our budget, it will come out of quality of care... staff,” Austin said. “The money coming in would not meet the money going out.”

For any business, that means trouble. For Martha and Mary, it could literally mean the end.

“It’s significant,” Austin added, noting that Martha and Mary would not be able to “cash flow” the building without the state support. Staff and service cuts would be made to ensure that necessary payments — such as mortgage and utilities — could be made but where and how deep the service reductions will be are also unknowns.

“If we are unable to support the nursing home, the entire budget structure would be affected,” explained Mike Botkin, director of fund development, noting that childcare services offered by Martha and Mary would also be impacted. “I don’t think it could get any worse.”

Austin, on the other hand, wasn’t sure and said he just hoped that it wouldn’t.

The executive director has expressed doubts whether the center could continue any service if the state takes a $1.1 million bite out of its budget.

“A cut of this magnitude threatens the continued existence of Martha and Mary,” he added.

Hanging in the balance are 375 local jobs.

Martha and Mary is currently Poulsbo’s second largest employer but, according to Austin, if the budget passes as planned, services and staff will be among the first cuts. Poulsbo’s economic forecast, which has been relatively healthy and even vibrant at times during the recent national recession, would worsen almost overnight.

“We want to express our concerns to the state,” explained Botkin. “We’re doing everything we can to get money.”

Martha and Mary officials have the ear of their representatives but with large cuts proposed on everything from education to mental-health programs, elected officials from throughout the state are getting similar requests from other constituents as well.

Officials from Martha and Mary have traveled to Olympia twice already to meet with Sen. Betti Sheldon, Rep. Phil Rockefeller and Rep. Bev Woods but the outcomes of both visits were less than positive.

“They’re sympathetic,” Botkin said. “But they’re also realistic and pessimistic.”

Barring a special session, officials at the Poulsbo mainstay are expecting a final answer from the state by mid-March.

“If protecting the most vulnerable is a value we cherish in this state, we must persuade our elected representatives to reject the proposed cuts to nursing homes,” Austin said.

Officials from Martha and Mary Lutheran Services Center are asking residents from Kitsap County and beyond to oppose the huge long-term care funding cuts by writing their Legislators. Addresses and information for the elected officials can be found at www.leg.wa.org.

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