‘Governor’s going to have a fight’: Pioneer Home resident suing state

The Ketchikan Pioneer Home is one of six in Alaska caring for older residents. (Photo by KRBD)

Several residents of state-run assisted living homes have sued the state over drastic rate increases. Three Pioneer Home residents are taking the state to court to prevent it from hiking monthly rates by as much as 140 percent.

Eileen Casey is in her mid-80s. But don’t let her slight demeanor fool you.

“I’m kind of known as a troublemaker,” Casey said in an interview at the Ketchikan Pioneer Home.

Twenty years ago she retired as a public school teacher in Juneau. But about five years ago, things got difficult. She was diagnosed with an illness and had trouble balancing. She says she often fell in her own home. These days, she’s in a wheelchair.

After her husband her passed away, she and her family decided she shouldn’t be living alone. The Pioneer Home in Ketchikan had space for her. At first, the transition was tough.

“I called my daughter on the phone in the middle of the night and said, ‘Get me the hell out of here,’” she said, recalling her first night in the Pioneer Home.

But she says five years later, the state-run assisted living facility is home. 

“This is where we play bingo,” she said, wheeling herself around the second floor of the Pioneer Home. “People come play the piano, or music or something like that.”

But Casey says one thing really made the difference.

“I got to know people — their life, their story and why they were here,” she said. “And that helped tremendously.”

But the security she’s found here? 

“Now, things have changed,” Casey said. Earlier this year, Casey and other residents got word that rents could more than double.

“It came to $11,000 a month,” she said.

According to her lawsuit, she had already fallen behind on payments. And with the recent increases, her debt has ballooned to nearly $100,000. She was recently approved for Medicaid, but that won’t cover all of it. She says she’s already been threatened with eviction.

“‘We can’t keep you here.’ That was said to me,” she said, quoting an unnamed Pioneer Home staffer. “And I said, ‘where are you going to put me, outside on the street?’ And I didn’t get an answer.”

Pioneer Home administrators have tried to assure residents they wouldn’t evict those who can’t pay. But Casey’s attorneys say that’s not much assurance.

“I wouldn’t want my family members relying on that — on the word of a state employee, that they’re not going to enforce something that’s been adopted in regulation, that’s just ridiculous,” said Libby Bakalar, one of two Juneau attorneys who filed the lawsuit on residents’ behalf.

Bakalar has an open case over her dismissal as an assistant attorney general following the inauguration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

The lawsuit asks a superior court judge to reverse the rate increases and impose an injunction. That would prevent the state from enforcing the rate increases and evicting anyone who doesn’t pay. She says taking the state to court was residents’ only option.

“When the executive branch takes an action that’s either unconstitutional, illegal or inequitable,” Bakalar said, “the remedy is to file a lawsuit and get a judge to tell the executive branch to change their behavior.”

Pioneer Homes are run by Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services.

They were established as a way to allow the state’s foundational seniors to stay in Alaska and be close with family and friends. The department referred all questions to the Department of Law. State attorneys say they don’t comment on pending cases. 

But in a letter to Pioneer Home residents, Director Clinton Lasley said the increases would bring rates in line with the cost of providing care. He said the state currently subsidizes the Pioneer Home system to the tune of $30 million per year . In the letter, he said the rate hikes are part of Governor Mike Dunleavy’s core budget objective: “we must earn what we spend.”

The state has until mid-December to respond to the lawsuit. In the meantime, Casey says she’s prepared to fight for herself and other Pioneer Home residents all over Alaska as she pursues the class action lawsuit.

“The governor’s going to have a fight on their hands,” she said.

The class action suit involves three of the nearly 500 residents in the six Pioneer Homes across Alaska.

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