Measure 97 is a ballot measure to increase taxes on companies with more than $25 million in annual sales in Oregon.
Two groups that serve as watchdogs over senior care, the state’s Long Term Care Ombudsman and Disability Rights Oregon, notified the Secretary of State about the letter sent by Brookdale Senior Living. The watchdog groups said Brookdale might have violated a state law against exerting undue influence over how a person votes.
The letter, which some residents received Oct. 19, refers to Measure 97 as a “hidden sales tax on goods and services,” and warns seniors that “groceries, medical supplies and prescriptions will be taxed.”
It suggests the cost of Brookdale’s services could go up if the measure passes.
“Brookdale is committed to providing quality care at a reasonable price. We are concerned however that the affordability of our services and many others that seniors rely upon will be threatened if Measure 97 is approved,” it reads.
Brookdale also included a sample “Letter to the Editor” detailing how Measure 97 hurts seniors, and asked residents to consider sending the letter to their local paper.
“We will begin an investigation in conjunction with the Department of Justice on the complaint, and we are going to try to resolve this as speedily as possible, given the looming election,” said Molly Woon, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state.
It’s not clear how many residents received the letter, but Brookdale Senior Living operates more than 40 licensed care facilities in Oregon. Those facilities include independent living, assisted living and memory care facilities for seniors with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Seniors living in Brookdale facilities in Redmond and Springfield complained to the ombudsman last week about receiving the letter.
“To me, it felt like an implicit threat of a fee increase if residents didn’t vote in a particular way,” said Fred Steele, the state’s long-term care ombudsman.
“Building ownership felt that they could look at those residents as a captive audience for their political message,” said Steele.
“The source of the letter is important, as well as what it says,” said Bob Jundeph, director of Disability Rights Oregon, which has endorsed Measure 97.
“It’s closer to home than even a landlord,” Jundeph said, “because Brookdale provides services that are designed specifically for people who do have limitations and vulnerabilities that the general population doesn’t.”
One local Brookdale staff person said she had been told to distribute the letter by Brookdale Regional Vice President Missy McAllister. McAllister was traveling Monday, and referred questions to Brookdale’s official spokesperson.
The company declined to answer questions about who decided to send the letter and how many residents received it.
“We are aware a letter was sent to our residents in Oregon regarding Ballot Measure 97,” said spokeswoman Heather Hunter in a written statement. “Our intention was to keep residents informed of the potential impact of the measure. We strive to keep our residents first, including providing information that could affect them.”
The campaigning over Measure 97 is now the costliest ballot measure fight in state history. Its opponents and proponents have raised more than $33 million attempting to sway voters.
The Oregon Health Care Association, a trade group that represents long-term care facilities, including assisted living, residential care, and in-home care, said it has remained neutral on Measure 97.
Spokeswoman Rosie Sontheimer said she did not believe Brookdale’s letter violated any of the industry’s ethical standards.
“Just like with any other profession, our long-term care facilities will communicate with residents they serve from time-to-time about important issues,” she said. “This seems to fall into that type of situation.”