Peoria County’s nursing home, founded in 1848, is closing. County board chairman Andrew Rand and administrator Scott Sorrel made the announcement Friday, April 17. While it was a surprise to most taxpayers, county board members have been quietly evaluating the future of Heddington Oaks for some three years. The closure was inevitable. It’s been losing millions over the years despite tax levies passed in 1983, which I supported, and again in 2003, which I opposed.
Elected in 1980, I took the lead in the first campaign to raise the Bel-Wood tax levy by 2.5 cents. It was approved by a 2-1 margin. The county did not assess the levy for 14 years. That proved to be a mistake. In opposing another tax referendum in 2003 after retiring from the board, I argued it was time to consider selling or leasing the facility because of numerous problems ranging from lawsuits to poor management to poor ratings by the Illinois Department of Public Health. Still, voters approved an increase in the levy from 2.5 to 6 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. I’m told the board did not add the increase to property taxes for several years. Another mistake, if true.
Financial and management problems continued. Daily charges per bed failed to exceed costs per day. At one time, private pay residents outnumbered public (Medicaid and Medicare) pay. At least that’s what the late Bel-Wood administrator Chuck Boyer once told me. He was proud of attracting private pay residents that reached, he claimed, as high as 90% of the nursing home population. Yet, many people, including editors and reporters at the Peoria Journal newspaper, demanded the need to allow more public pay residents and thus the numbers reversed.
Administrator Scott Sorrel was quoted as saying the nursing home needs more Medicare residents to make ends meet. Wrong. The nursing home needs more private pay. Simply put, they pay more. When I was chairman of the Health Services Committee with legislative oversight, even Medicare payments fell short of daily costs. At the news conference, Sorrel said per diem costs per resident were $299 and per diem revenue amounted to $265. No wonder the nursing home was losing $2 million a year with a bond debt of $42 million.
Heddington Oaks currently employs 170 people to care for 140 residents. That brings me to the decision by the county board to construct a new nursing home in 2013, while swimming in red ink. A study concluded, perhaps inaccurately, that rather than renovate the Bel-Wood building, it would be fiscally more responsible to construct a new facility. A smaller building to accommodate 214 beds compared to the 300 at Bel-Wood, would cost an estimated $28 million, they said. Like all estimates, it fell short of the actual $42 million. One wonders what renovation costs would’ve been for a new sprinkler system and other public safety updates at Bel-Wood including a new roof. I would be impressed if someone could prove to me it would cost taxpayers more than, or close to, $42 million.
Essentially, the challenge for Peoria County officials was to market Heddington Oaks to improve the bottom line. The job was to hire a full-time marketing and development director to sell Heddington Oaks to the Tri-County area as the place to go to get better after hospitalization and/or to spend their remaining years in life. Regular visits to hospital discharge planners and physician offices and clinics, ongoing TV, radio and billboard advertising, speeches before civic and church organizations, direct mail advertising, and intensive community participation should’ve been implemented before throwing in the towel. It would’ve required a significant investment, but when you owe $42 million it becomes mandatory.
Heddington Oaks is a county asset, but a financial liability. Too bad it wasn’t better protected. Perhaps county officials are right. Times have changed. Despite a beautiful and functional building staffed by quality people providing quality care, the county apparently can’t compete with private enterprise. Let’s hope the building can be sold at a reasonable price. Perhaps a healthcare corporation can retro fit the building into a retirement home like Independence Village and the new Serenity in East Peoria, both very successful facilities for the elderly.
In closing, I believe everyone in the county wanted Heddington Oaks, new name and all, to succeed. No one wanted it to fail. County officials consulted OSF Healthcare for management support and also approached some local nursing home administrators and/or owners for advice. They hired more than one administrator to turn the operation around. No one could. I guess, as I said at the start, it was inevitable Peoria County would have to get out of the nursing home business. And so they are.
Quote of the Month
“A society that does not value its older people denies its roots and endangers its future. Let us strive to enhance their capacity to support themselves for as long as possible and, when they cannot do so anymore, to care for them.”