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Winchester House advocate asks county board chairman to commit to high-quality nursing home care

Lake County Board Chairman Dave Stolman is questioned about his commitment to high-quality care at Winchester House by Lake County United advocate Kitty Cole. (Chicago Tribune\Amy Alderman)

Lake County Board Chairman Dave Stolman is questioned about his commitment to high-quality care at Winchester House by Lake County United advocate Kitty Cole. (Chicago Tribune\Amy Alderman)

Nine days after Lake County board members voted to request bids from private companies to manage the county-owned nursing home, a leader from a local non-profit cornered Lake County Board Chairman David Stolman.

Kitty Cole, a member of Lake County United’s Winchester House advocacy committee, appeared to stop the chairman before he took the podium on June 22, darting a series of questions at him at LCU’s assembly of more than 150 people at Islamic Foundation North, 1751 O’Plaine Road, Waukegan.

“We have to put the residents first. They’re more important than anything,” Cole said.

Stolman and Cole have since acknowledged that they agreed to the seemingly spontaneous discussion beforehand.

During the forum, Cole asked Stolman if he would dedicate his efforts to ensuring that Winchester House continues to offer high-quality health care to local seniors. She also asked him to commit that only private health care companies with excellent track records would be considered in the bidding process for privatized management at the health care center at 1125 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Libertyville.

The chairman answered “yes” to each question, but did say he “wanted to set the record strait” and that “newspapers are willing to write a less than factual scenario.”

Winchester House resident, Monica Behnke, 79, talks with Micah Glaze, 18, of Waukegan, who is a member of the Lake County United’s Waukegan to College program. (Chicago Tribune\Amy Alderman)

“There’s been a lot of confusion,” he said. “Winchester House wages and benefits are significantly more than the market rate. In the end, we will not be able to operate in the existing levy. We would be forced to take money from other funds. Privatizing would stop that. Residents would not be required to move and would continue to get excellent quality care.”

In a previous story, the Tribune quoted a county official who noted that there are a lot of long term employees at Winchester House. Those government employees were getting 2 or 3 percent pay raises per year, and combined with benefits and health insurance, Lake County is paying almost 30 percent above what private companies do to run nursing homes.

On Wednesday, one resident and an LCU member, Monica Behnke, 79, spoke to the audience tongue-in-cheek, saying she’s still concerned the quality of care might decline.

“It’s a blessing to be in Winchester House,” she said. “I worked hard all my life, so God said, ‘take a break.’ And so I had a stroke. Now I have to be someplace where I need people to help take care of me.”

As an independent person for most of her life, Behnke said it took a long time for her to be able to let people help her when a major stroke paralyzed the left side of her body seven years ago. Friendly and experienced nurses at Winchester House made her feel comfortable with the fact that she needs and enjoys the help they provide her.

New, inexperienced or underpaid staff might not be able to help Behnke as she’s grown accustomed in her daily life, she said.

It’s become too expensive to keep some staff members on the county’s payroll while Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements continue to decrease, causing the county more financial headaches, several county board members have noted.

The nursing home is an issue about high quality care, and not the bottom line, said Nancy Dunn, a retired 25-year Winchester House nurse.

“It is a home where love lives,” she said. “When people ask me how to choose a nursing home, I say don’t look at the wall paper. Look at the eyes of the workers. Winchester House and its staff are inseparable.

About 180 people work at Winchester House, which is home to 190 residents. Medicaid supports 77 percent of those residents, said Chief Financial Officer Mary Stevens.

In the 115-page request for bids, Lake County is requiring that private specialized nursing homes would maintain at least a 55 percent Medicaid population and a maximum 75 percent Medicaid population.

“We expect it (Medicaid population) to go down to 75 percent,” said County Board Administrator Barry Burton. “We think through normal attrition we will get there, but we have to get down there. Our mission is to care for those who don’t have ability to pay. But if our payer source is too out of whack, then our bottom line, we wouldn’t be able to meet it. The more realistic issue is we would stop taking new people in and we would get there that way. We would slow down or stop admissions, but we’re not there yet. We’re open for business.”

Last year the healthcare center operated with $18 million in expenses with revenues of $17.7 million, which includes over $3 million in property tax revenue.

The $3 million in property tax revenue comes from a .025 tax levy dating back to 1982, County Administrator Barry Burton said. The remaining revenue sources are Medicaid, Medicare and private payment plans.

In the meantime, the design of a new $36 million Winchester House facility is about 80 percent complete, according to a fact sheet issued by the county.

Remaining in the current facility is not a good option because repairs are estimated to cost $20 million to bring the facility up to current standards, the fact sheet says.

Michael Knight, a member of the Winchester House Advisory Board, which recommended privatizing the nursing home, is also in favor of a new structure.

Building a new home that will provide quality care for seniors of all income levels is a “fundamental justice,” he said.

A Lake County resident with an 81-year-old mother also has concerns for the future of Winchester House.

“We’ve got to take care of our elderly just as they took care of us,” said Marie Honeywell, 58, of Mundelein. “You can’t just go with the lowest bidder. The quality of care has to be with a high standard. I’m getting to the point when I’m going to be needing services at some point. Hopefully, I’ll be able to take care of myself and so will my mother. If she can’t afford private services and needs care, I would hope Winchester House would be available for her. You never know what the future’s going to bring.”

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