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Behind the List with Mark Pile, president and CEO of Diakon Lutheran Social Ministries Services to meet changing demands

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With advancements in medicine and people advocating healthier lifestyles, more people are living longer.

As the population continues to grow and we're living longer into older age, the demand for special services and accommodations is on the rise.

There are companies in our communities that can help by providing care to family members, loved ones and friends.

Here to answer our “Behind the List” is Mark Pile, president and CEO of Diakon Lutheran Social Ministries of South Whitehall Township.

Lehigh Valley Business: How long has Diakon Lutheran Social Ministries been operating in the Greater Lehigh Valley and what are its primary services?

Mark Pile: Diakon Lutheran Social Ministries has had a presence in this region since 1897 when The Lutheran Home at Topton came into being. It was an orphanage that early on also developed services for older adults. By the time orphanages came to an end in society, it had already broadened into offering a range of community-based programs for children and youths, as well as its senior living accommodations.

In 2000, the organization that operated The Lutheran Home at Topton affiliated and later merged with a similar organization in central Pennsylvania to create Diakon Lutheran Social Ministries.

Today, local services include continuing care retirement communities such as Luther Crest in South Whitehall Township, The Lutheran Home at Topton, Manatawny Manor near Pottstown and Twining Village in Holland, Bucks County.

In addition, we have a comprehensive range of services for children and families, including adoption and foster care, wilderness- and community based programs for at-risk youths, family and individual behavioral-health counseling services and a number of community-based programs for older adults, particularly in Schuylkill County.

Separately, Diakon also manages the Statewide Adoption & Permanency Network — typically known as SWAN — under contract with the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

LVB: With laws in health care perpetually changing, what strategies does Diakon implement to keep up with the change and provide excellent services to its clientele?

Pile: There is no question this is a moving target, as regulations and the health care landscape continue to change. Along with absolutely necessary steps such as implementing electronic medical records and maintaining a laser-focus on both compliance and quality measures, we are working to build numerous relationships with other health care providers in the communities in which we serve. Being part of such networks, formally or informally, is critical.

In some cases, that means making a change to our services. For example, we had one of the first hospice programs in the state, if not the nation, Diakon Hospice Saint John, serving several regions of northeastern Pennsylvania including the Lehigh Valley — and knew we had to expand that to include in-home services.

That was not our particular expertise, and after spending some time focused on expanding that program, we made the decision to transition our hospice and help-at-home services to a sister Lutheran organization, Lutheran Home Care & Hospice, that has developed expertise around in-home services. That became a win-win for both organizations.

You also have to develop services to meet changing demands — we're working on or planning several projects to expand our short-term rehabilitation suites and to develop more memory related services. In addition, innovation is important. As I noted in our video interview, we recently opened a neighborhood-concept health care center at Buffalo Valley Lutheran Village in Lewisburg.

That concept means residents live in their own “neighborhood” and have their own shared living room, kitchen and so on. They have continuity of staff care, take their meals together and do programming together — all within their own neighborhood, which makes the community very homelike. Even shared accommodations have separate bed areas to eliminate any institutional feel.

This concept also allows staff members to focus on what is called “patient-centered care,” which means residents rise or go to bed when they want, take meals when they want and so on. That type of individualized care not only is in keeping with our core mission, but also is essential in the new health care environment.

LVB: What have been some of the biggest hardships and opportunities Diakon has encountered throughout its years in business?

Pile: Our greatest challenges have typically related to funding, whether from reimbursement levels for nursing care or services for children or from the 2008 economic downturn, which made a lot of older adults hesitant to seek the type of accommodations in which they had hoped to retire. As a result, we had to refine and redouble our sales-related processes.

A few years earlier, in the mid-2000s, we realized that with two dozen retirement communities — the result of our merger — our capital needs would be staggering, so we transitioned ownership of nine stand-alone skilled nursing or personal care campuses to another health care provider. While difficult at the time, that decision has proven to be both wise and strategic.

More recently, we undertook a similar effort with our child and family programs, transitioning a few lone programs (for example, a stand-alone child day care center in Baltimore) to other providers, both assuring their continuation as community services and our ability to focus on what we call core programs such as adoption and foster care, services for at-risk youths, counseling and community-based services.

Our opportunities have arisen from that focus on core ministries, expanding them where possible and, in one or two cases, purchasing programs that allowed us to serve a new region.

In addition, innovation has been a hallmark of our organization since 1868, often providing opportunity. One of our early children's homes, for example, had its own banking system and vocational-training program — designed to ready the youths it served for successful life in the community. And our adoption program was one of the first in the nation to concentrate exclusively on the placement of children with special needs.

We're continuing those innovations today with specialized programs at our Diakon Wilderness Center — based in Cumberland County but which serves youths and young adults from this region — designed to teach at-risk youths work skills and the value of responsibility toward family, school, work, and the community. Plus, we maintain that focus on children with special needs — particularly older youths about to age out of the child-welfare system — through a range of matching and family-finding programs within our adoption and foster care program.

LVB: How does Diakon directly stimulate the local economy?

Pile: We have a significant impact on the local economy. For example, in Lehigh County alone, we have 212 employees and an estimated annual payroll of $8.3 million. In 2013, we paid property taxes in the county of nearly $1 million. Our actual and projected capital expenditures in the county total $5.6 million.

If we add three other regional counties where we also have senior living communities — Berks, Bucks and Chester — those figures total nearly 1,100 employees, a payroll of nearly $21 million, property tax payments of more than $1.5 million and actual or projected capital expenditures of $14.7 million.

And that's just in this region; we have similar services in central Pennsylvania and two in Maryland.

More importantly, across all of Diakon, we annually provide between $14 million and $15 million in benevolent care through our senior living and child and family programs, enabling thousands of people to receive the care or service they need but would otherwise not be able to afford.

LVB: What does the future look like for Diakon? Does it have plans for expanded growth in the region?

Pile: I believe the future looks very bright, although as always we temper optimism with realistic assessment of the marketplace and funding; I don't believe we would have been around since 1868 — when our first children's home originated in central Pennsylvania — if we did not operate that way.

Over the past half-decade or so, we've taken a number of steps to streamline our administrative processes and overhead, focus staff on key census goals, institute a plan to emphasize care for our valuable and dedicated staff members and undertake refinancing or secure new bonds to underwrite the capital projects we need to do to remain a market leader in senior living services. …

We also are in the process of moving our child and family programs into a separate, subsidiary-style corporation that will allow a newly developed board of directors to dedicate all of its focus on those particular services for children, families and the community — evidence of our historic commitment to those services and our belief that we can continue to grow them.

Compiled by christopher holland

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Christopher Holland

Christopher Holland

Christopher Holland is a researcher for Lehigh Valley Business and blogs on arts and entertainment in the region.

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