Allegheny County to help with those with Alzheimer's, dementia at Kane Regional

David Conti
| Saturday, July 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Lois Lutz and Mary Jean Kirby describe it as the hardest decision they ever made.

Would the personal care home they sought for their parents be secure enough for their mother, Loretta Walter — who has Alzheimer's disease — and offer the garden space their late father Jerry needed to feel at home?

“There is no perfect place. Even at home is not a perfect place,” said Lutz of Hampton. “I wanted someplace clean, that the residents looked happy, where they looked engaged and not just in front of a TV set, sleeping.”

“We didn't feel there were that many choices,” said Kirby, 65, Lutz's older sister, also from Hampton. “We were lucky that our parents had the resources.”

High costs at private nursing homes and few specialized facilities make a tough decision even tougher when families seek long-term care for loved ones with Alzheimer's disease or dementia, advocates say.

Allegheny County leaders intend to help, through the publicly funded Kane Regional Centers. At the Scott center, they are converting an unused wing into a secure unit for Alzheimer's and dementia patients, with room for 45 residents in medical beds. Leaders expect the unit to open by early December.

“Our own RNs and staff and medical doctors we engage were consistently telling us there was a need in this area,” county Manager William McKain said. A dementia unit at the Glen Hazel center is full.

Officials hope the new unit will help make a dent in the Kane system's chronic deficit, which McKain estimated at $3 million to $4 million a year. They want to market specialized services to help the Kanes attract residents and not just be a “last option” for families.

“If this one works, we'll explore possibly doing it at other Kanes,” McKain said.

Officials and patient advocates say demand exists for such a specialty unit. The number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer's or a related condition is expected to grow from today's estimated 400,000 statewide.

About 200 of the state's 710 nursing homes have designated Alzheimer's units, according to the state Department of Health. Those units account for about 8 percent of the state's nursing home beds.

A committee that Gov. Tom Corbett established this year to write a plan for addressing Alzheimer's treatment will determine how many more specialized beds and resources patients will need as Pennsylvania's population ages.

“Like the rest of our nation, it might not be sufficient,” said state Secretary of Aging Brian Duke, who chairs the committee. “When you look at health care delivery, we have to be concerned about the cost of care. How will we continue to provide care if there's an increased demand?”

The medical community has about half the professionals trained in geriatrics that the national population needs, said Clay Jacobs, vice president for programs and services at the Greater Pennsylvania Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.

The number of specialty units in long-term care facilities has dropped since 2004, accounting for about 5 percent of all beds, Jacobs said.

“The cost is difficult,” he said.

Allegheny County is spending $1 million on the wing in Scott and will hire 25 to 28 staffers.

“It's commendable, being able to do that,” Jacobs said.

Having 40 of the 45 beds in the unit filled every day would bring in about $3 million a year, mostly from Medicare and other reimbursements, county officials said. Once additional costs are subtracted, the county expects to net $500,000 to $750,000.

“I don't doubt they'll be able to fill those beds,” said Lutz, an education outreach specialist for the Alzheimer's Association.

The county needs the money to offset what it calls the “subsidy” it pays to keep the four Kane centers open. That deficit grew from $2 million annually over the past few years as federal reimbursements stagnated and the number of residents dropped, McKain said.

Figures from the county controller show average daily occupancy at the centers in Scott, Glen Hazel, McKeesport and Ross dropped from more than 1,000 in April 2011 to 942 this past April.

“Some of it is competition,” McKain said of the drop. “That's why we want to do more.”

McKain and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said they are trying to change people's image of the Kanes as “county homes.”

“We hear from families that sometimes it takes a lot to get over that mental image,” Jacobs said. “That can happen when they improve care and provide quality care like this.”

David Conti is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or

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