Alaska News

Alaska nursing homes extraordinarily expensive for seniors

If a new study from the long-term care health insurance company Genworth is to be believed, Alaska is an expensive place to buy a room in a nursing home. In fact, according to Genworth's Cost of Long Term Care Across the Nation survey, a year in an Alaska nursing home runs nearly the cost of an average family home in Anchorage.

The study found that the average cost for a semi-private room in a nursing home can cost as much as $232,505 a year, depending on where in the state it's located. Some places cost more. The daily rate can vary from $452 to $950. Outside of the major cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks, rooms in a nursing home can reach a staggering $285,000 per year.

Alaska costs much more

These costs are wildly higher than the rest of the nation, where daily nursing home rates can be as low as $80, and the average annual cost for a semi-private room in a nursing home is $73,000.

An online news site called 24/7 Wall St. analyzed the data and incorporated how much income elderly are also bringing in. From that, it came up with a list of "10 states where elder care is outrageous."

Adding yet another "top ranking" to the infamous lists where Alaska often leads or trails the other 49 states, Alaska was the state with the highest cost of elder care. And Alaska also has the nation's second most expensive assisted-living facilities, at an average of $66,000 per year. (The more extensive care provided by nursing homes makes them more expensive than assisted-living facilities.)

Alaska is no stranger to the distinction. In 2010, a similar study by MetLife Mature Market Institute made similar findings in its own Long Term Care Survey. Three years ago, it found a private room in an Alaska nursing home averaged $250,755 per year – again, the highest cost out of any state.

In 24/7 Wall St.'s more recent analysis, it found that the median income for elderly Alaskans ages 65 and above is $23,100 -- the most of any state, but still far from enough to pay for a lengthy care stay.

Much more than Connecticut

"Not only is Alaska far and away the most expensive state for the elderly to receive long-term care, it surpasses the rest of the country by a very wide margin," summed up 24/7 Wall St. noting that Alaska's nursing home care rate is $138,700 more per year than the next- most-costly state, Connecticut.

One reason cited for the disparity is Alaska's low population. In large Outside cities, a nearby labor force is more readily available, according to Genworth. But in such states as Alaska and Hawaii, employees may have to commute farther and facilities may have to maintain larger staffs to ensure quality care around the clock, according to the analysis.

'An expensive state'

The people in Alaska watching over the state's long term care agree, Alaska is uniquely situated. "It's expensive and this is an expensive state," explained Diana Weber, Alaska's Long Term Care Ombudsman, cautioning, though, that "it's not a simple topic."

She didn't think Genworth's figures were off base, but was careful to point out quick snapshots don't create an accurate portrait. For example, according to Genworth's study, long-term care in Anchorage might run $164,900 per year. While in Fairbanks it's $229,000 per year and the statewide average is $227,000.

Nursing home care in the state's smaller, more remote communities may be more expensive because they are based in hospitals, and help support the cost of maintaining a hospital in a community. And the farther one gets away from Southcentral Alaska, the more it costs for heat and electricity – an energy predicament the state has wrestled with for years.

Alaska has about 600 assisted-living facilities and 16 nursing homes – roughly 3,000 and 700 beds, respectively – and it's not enough to meet the needs of the state's seniors, a population growing so quickly the term "silver tsunami" is used to describe the trend.

A 2010 "Senior Snapshot" published by Alaska's Department of Health and Social Services shows it's the youngest and oldest of the state's seniors who are adding to the ranks quickest. Baby boomers who moved here for the oil and construction booms of past decades are aging into retirement. And older seniors – those over the age of 85 – are living longer.

This study rated population increase in Southcentral Alaska among seniors at 72 percent, with nine other regions averaging 20 percent. And this block of consumers contributes mightily to the state economy – spending at least $1.7 billion per year, including money sunk into health care.

Increasingly, elders need help with daily living – ideally through assisted-living homes or home health aides, which keeps them in their own homes or their home neighborhoods. Only the most frail require the around-the-clock skilled nursing care provided by nursing homes. Despite their high price tag, nursing homes are seen as a way to curb the costs of repeated hospital admissions for seniors with more acute and complicated health needs.

Yet as Genworth points out, the costs aren't cheap. And yet the services will continue to be needed.

"There is a reason most skilled nursing beds in Alaska are paid for by Medicaid," Weber said. "I don't think that anybody's making a lot of money off of long-term care."

Read more here.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com

Jill Burke

Jill Burke is a former writer and columnist for Alaska Dispatch News.

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