News Local/State

Some, Not All, County Nursing Homes In Illinois Are Thriving

Entrance to the McLean County Nursing Home in Normal.

Entrance to the McLean County Nursing Home in Normal. Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media

Faced with mounting costs and voter rejection of a tax increase, the Champaign County Board is looking for a broker for the possible sale of its nursing home to a private operator. They wouldn’t be the first county in central Illinois to decide that that running a nursing home was no longer viable for them. But there are some nearby counties that are running nursing homes with little or no financial trouble.

One of those counties is McLean, where the McLean County Nursing Home operates in Normal.

During a tour of the nursing home, administrator Cindy Wegner shows me one of the common rooms, where a bingo game is in session. About 35 residents have gathered to play, as one woman calls out columns and numbers.

“B-Eleven! B-One-One!”

Eventually, one player completes a row on their card, and reponds with “Bingo!”, followed by a request to “Call the bets, please!”

Wegner says bingo is one of the most popular activities at the nursing home.

“Bingo and music”, said Wegner. “Any type of music activity usually draws a crowd.”

The McLean County Nursing Home currently houses about 100 people (with about 54% of them on Medicaid) in a 1970’s-era building designed to hold 150. In contrast, the Champaign County Nursing Home is currently housing about 140 people, in a facility designed for about 240. Wegner says the nursing home is talking with local hospitals and home care agencies, in hopes of tapping into referral networks that would help bring the nursing home’s census up and closer to its capacity.

Like the Champaign County facility, the McLean County Nursing Home is currently losing money, due to state delays in processing Medicaid applications and dispensing Medicaid payments. But unlike Champaign County, the home in Normal has reserve funds to fall back on, and doesn’t owe money to its vendors or the county.

Sue Schafer chairs the McLean County Board’s Health Committee, which oversees the nursing home. The Bloomington Republican says having no debt to worry about is important.

 “Once you have no debt, sometimes it’s easier to just kind of maintain”, said Schafer. “I mean, just like with anything in life; whether it’s, you know, your car and so, we’re very, very cautious. Sometimes people think we’re slow on doing things, but that’s kind of the way we are.”

The McLean County Nursing Home gets some money from county government for things like employee pensions. But it doesn’t have the sort of designated property tax levy that helps the Champaign County Nursing Home … and that also helps the county nursing home in neighboring Piatt County.

The Piatt County Nursing Home in Monticello is a smaller facility than either the Champaign or McLean County nursing homes. The Piatt County Home facility has a capacity of about 100 beds, with more than 80 of them filled as of May. About half of the residents are on Medicaid.

County Board Chairman Randy Keith says that in addition to the facility’s property tax levy, the Piatt County Nursing Home also benefits from offering a special Assisted Living wing, where residents who don’t need round-the-clock nursing care can live in relative independence. Keith says having the Maple Point Assisted Living wing attached to the nursing home means the two facilities can share nursing staff and revenue.

“So, from the healthcare standpoint, we’re very proud of it”, said Keith. “And then, the dollar part of it, it helps us support our nursing home … We always have a waiting list … My parents live there.”

Assisted Living has become an element of a growing number of nursing homes, both public and private. For nursing homes without them, like Champaign County’s, they may be part of the reason for the facility’s empty beds. Rick Snider worries about the nursing home as the Champaign County Administrator. He says experts have told him that new options like assisted living mean that the area may have more nursing home beds than it needs.

“I don’t think anyone would have foreseen the growth in some of the alternatives, such as assisted living and senior apartments”, said Snider. “So many people that might have been prospective residents at a nursing facility are now doing things at some of those other alternatives.”

 In recent years, several central Illinois counties --- Vermilion, Ford, DeWitt and Livingston --- have all sold or closed their county nursing homes. Piatt County Board Chairman Randy Keith says he feels sorry for his county board colleagues in Champaign County … who may have to do the same.

“I know, as I say, several members of the board, and I know that they have not come to these decisions lightly”, said Keith.  “You know, and they reached out for direction to the citizens of Champaign County, and they got what they got. I just feel bad for ‘em. I know it’s not what they want to do. But we don’t always get to do what we want to do.”

Not all members of the Champaign County Board are ready to sell the nursing home. A group of Democrats on the board are committed to keeping the facility in county hands, in the belief that it could be financially viable, if only the state would speed up its processing of Medicaid applications. That problem is blamed on the office that handles downstate Medicaid applicants; the state government recently opened an additional office in an attempt to speed up the work.

Meanwhile, Champaign County is also exploring a consultant’s proposal to convert the county nursing home to a non-profit entity, working in cooperation with local hospitals and other healthcare organizations. County administrator Snider says talks are ongoing with two local healthcare entities about the idea.