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Finance officials approve Winchester House contract — just Lake County Board approval remains

Lake County finance officials have unanimously endorsed a plan that will hand over the management of a county-run senior residence to a private healthcare company, putting the final decision in the county board’s hands.

The Wednesday vote was the second in a three-part approval process of a draft of a contract with Minnesota-based Health Dimensions Group to run Winchester House at 1125 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Libertyville.

“They have to see the positive path we’re taking,” said Health and Community Services committee member and Lake County Board Chairman Dave Stolman on Tuesday, in response to concerns about whether or not the staff levels and wages at Winchester House would remain the same.

“Our pool is going to become their pool,” Stolman said. “Anyone who wants the job will have a job. I wish I could say there’s a guarantee, but there is no guarantee.”

The Health and Community Services committee voted 7-2 in favor of the contract on Tuesday.

About 180 people work at Winchester House, which is home to 190 residents.

The county stipulated in its request for bids that at least a 55 percent Medicaid population and a maximum 75 percent Medicaid population would be retained at Winchester House.

Currently, 72 percent of residents at Winchester House are supported by Medicaid, according to Ann Wagner, Winchester House administrator.

All of the current residents will be able to continue to live at Winchester House, said County Administrator Barry Burton.

If the county board approves the contract with Health Dimensions Group, the partnership could become effective as soon as Dec. 1, Burton said.

Health Dimensions Group, which operates 22 skilled nursing facilities, was chosen because its homes have a heavy Medicaid population and a consistency in high quality care ratings in client surveys, officials backing the agreements said.

Melinda Bush and Mary Cunningham voted against the contract on Tuesday, saying they wanted a guarantee that current wages wouldn’t be docked.

“You’re taking from one group of people who can ill afford to be paid less in order to put that into a profit margin for a private company,” Bush said. “I don’t think the way to solve this is to pay people who get $15, $16 an hour and pay them $10 and $11 an hour.”

Most employees at Winchester House are members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31. Staff numbers have gone down from 330 to 180 in a couple of waves of massive cuts since 2005.

Matthew LaPierre, the union’s staff representative, fears private management would likely mean pay cuts that would bring Winchester House employees salaries below a living wage.

“This would leave some employees just above minimum wage,” he said. “Such talk shows a massive amount of disrespect. There are almost 30 employees with over 20 years of service at Winchester House. Let’s keep Winchester House the people’s house and not turn it over to the privateers.”

A comparison of current Winchester House wages and HDG salaries has not yet been written, Burton said in a previous interview.

“There’s no way of knowing that. It’s part of the bargaining process. It’s negotiable,” he said.

Historically, HDG has kept 95 percent of employees at the five public institutions it has taken over, said Craig Abbott, chief executive officer of HDG.

“We don’t go through 185 people and do interviews. Maybe we should. We take a leap of faith,” Abbott said.

While the county will pay HDG $50,000 a month to run Winchester House, the agreement will save the county $1.5 million in revenue, Burton said on Tuesday.

The contract is scheduled to be discussed at the Oct. 11 county board meeting.


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