Joyce Tona visits with her daughter Diane who lives at the Michener Centre.

Michener: The Closing Doors — Part 11 — Weighing the cost of Michener care

A new university research paper looking at the cost of care for people with autism spectrum disorder — one of the most common developmental disabilities — identifies the need for housing similar to modern day Michener Centre.

A new university research paper looking at the cost of care for people with autism spectrum disorder — one of the most common developmental disabilities — identifies the need for housing similar to modern day Michener Centre.

Group homes fall short for some and alternative models of housing will be necessary for the growing number of individuals requiring care, according to The Value of Caregiver Time: Costs of Support and Care for Individuals Living with Autism Spectrum Disorder by Carolyn Dudley and J.C. Herbert Emery, published in January by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.

“Models of housing that provide quality services but recognize scale economies can be part of the future solutions. The history of institutions for those with disability is grim, but some of the concepts in terms of economy of scale, if offered in a quality-of-care setting, could be built upon to provide cost-efficient care. The Michener Centre in Alberta is an example of this and was home to a number of high-needs individuals,” the authors said.

“The Michener Centre had evolved far beyond its institutional roots and offered a safe haven for complex and difficult individuals who could not live elsewhere.”

Author Carolyn Dudley, who has a severely autistic 15-year-old son at home, liked the idea of a village setting with housing that is larger than group homes with shared services like transportation and recreation.

Donna Tona, whose sister Diane Tona, 50, still lives at Michener, said her family has total faith in Michener Centre.

“My sister has never spent a night in wet diaper in her life. My sister gets bathed every day. She has good quality food. We don’t have to worry about her being hurt,” Donna Tona said.

The province is in the process of closing older Michener buildings that will force about 120 residents to find somewhere else to live. Diane Tona lives in one of the buildings the province intends to shut down by the end of 2014.

Tona said it was a tremendously difficult decision for her parents to put Diane into Michener at age six.

“When they took her in and said their goodbyes, they drove down the road, went into a farmer’s field and just cried for three hours,” said Tona who struggled to hold back her own tears recalling how it devastated her parents.

“My parents farmed, we had a very large farm, and they needed respite care. Diane was completely dependent. They knew my other sister and I weren’t getting any attention. They eventually came to the decision she needed to go where she was most supported and to place her where they didn’t have to worry.”

While many Michener residents were wards of the province, a few families like the Tonas faced a monthly $700 bill from Michener when Diane went into care in the late ‘60s. The family struggled to pay as much as they could.

In the early ‘70s, the Lougheed government decided to pay the cost of care for all Michener residents.

“We’ve always been thankful to Peter Lougheed,” Tona said.

In 1983, Michener Centre ran on a $50-million budget, with 1,502 residents and 2,011 employees.

Thirty years later when the Redford government announced the facility would close, Michener had a $41-million budget, 228 residents and 640 employees.

Currently, it costs on average $168,000 a year to care for each Michener resident while care in the community costs $60,000.

Critics of the closure say the province is shutting doors at Michener just to save money.

The province argues it’s following best practices as people lead more meaningful lives when they live in the community.

“The closure of Michener was never about saving money. It’s about improving the lives of individuals. It’s about the integration, the inclusion. It’s about moving them into the community,” said Human Services Associate Minister Naresh Bhardwaj.

He said the 2014-15 budget includes $965 million for Persons with Developmental Disabilities — an increase of 5.9 per cent or $54 million — that will address a recent unprecedented increase of about seven or eight per cent in PDD clients. Generally it’s a two- to 2.5-per-cent increase.

Additional money was also committed to increasing wages for community staff, he said.

NDP critic Rachel Notley was worried about the increased pressure that will be put on service providers with the closure of Michener Centre, a decision the NDP does not support.

Last spring the province cut $42 million in community access supports, then backed off when faced with public protest. Only $25 million was restored in the new budget.

“They said they had decided they would not move ahead with those changes. What we see in this budget is although they have put some money back in, they haven’t put it all back in,” Notley said.

Specialized community supports was also cut in half to about $7 million from $15 million in 2012-13.

“I remain highly concerned with the quality of supports Michener Centre residents will receive once they leave the centre,” Notley said.

Tim Bear, president of the Alberta Disability Workers Association, said administrative costs for Michener Centre amount to 36 per cent of its direct service budget compared to 12 per cent in the community — or three times as much.

“I guess any institution, whether it’s a bank or a hospital, grows its own empire over time and Michener has been around for a very long, long time,” Bear said.

Michener’s facility and infrastructure costs are also triple that of community care, he said.

He said as a unionized workplace, Michener does offer better wages. Experienced disability support workers at Michener make about $23 to $25 per hour compared to $15 to $20 in the community, so Michener is able to hire people who start with higher qualifications, and they continue to have access to training.

“In terms of the stability and the quality of staff that are (at Michener), I would say they are top-notch. But that’s not in any way to suggest that options in the community wouldn’t be just as good.”

Community care is different, he said.

“Community care is about community and about the community being involved and about people having friends who are not paid and being involved in spontaneous kinds of activities that you do and your kids do,” Bear said.

Red Deer North MLA Mary Anne Jablonski and Alberta Union of Provincial Employees have proposed keeping some south side buildings at Michener Centre open for residents who want to stay.

Jablonski said last week she is waiting to find out exactly how many residents that would be.

“If they tell me the number, than that’s the number I’m going to fight for because there are some people who have lived there for so long. To move them out now would do more damage than good,” said Jablonski, one-time Seniors and Community Supports Minister who has grown close to residents and staff at Michener, which is located in her constituency.

Some families want aging residents to move closer to home. Others feel their loved ones need the expertise and experience Michener can provide, she said.

Coming Thursday: The stories of a few of the thousands of residents who have left Michener Centre over the years.

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