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UPDATE: County Board agrees to turn management of Winchester House over to private firm

The Lake County Board this week agreed to turn over management of its residence for seniors to a private company.

The draft contract with Minnesota-based Health Dimensions Group was approved on Tuesday by a 15-8 vote. It could become effective as early as Dec. 1, officials said.

Winchester House, at 1125 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Libertyville, is home to about 166 residents and 180 employees.

Some families and employees have worried that turning management over to a private company will affect the quality of care – and mean cuts in pay and benefits for employees.

“We are using a private company to help us take better care of our sisters and our brothers,” Lake County Board Chairman Dave Stolman said during Tuesday’s meeting. “We’re trying to build a new road of confidence with a company today.”

Some board members criticized the county’s management of Winchester House, saying not enough has been done to market it as private nursing homes popped up throughout the suburbs in recent years.

Officials did try to market Winchester House to the senior population, said District 15 County Board member Carol Calabresa, who is also on the home’s advisory board.

“We have tried,” Calabresa said. “We weren’t being successful. It’s a very competitive market.”

The county bought the land on Milwaukee Avenue in the 1800s to use as a farm for the area’s poorest citizens, and has historically taken a loss on its operation. In recent years, the struggling economy forced the county to re-examine how the land should be used.

Meanwhile, Winchester House pays its employees 30 percent more than private healthcare facilities, County Administrator Barry Burton has said. The discrepancy sparked the talk of bringing in a private management firm. Some had urged that the county should get out of the business by selling the home.

Last year the healthcare center posted $18 million in expenses, with revenues of just $17.7 million – including more than $3 million in property tax revenue that comes from a .025 levy dating back to 1982, Burton said. The remaining revenue sources are Medicaid, Medicare and private payment plans.

In the past, additional Lake County property tax revenues have been used to subsidize $9 million per year of the cost of Winchester house, Calabresa said.

Some see the management contract as the first step toward the county’s sale 0f Winchester House.

Veronica Sanchez, 48, of Waukegan, who has worked at Winchester House for 21 years, was in tears after county board members approved the management agreement. She is concerned that HDG would pay her less, if she keeps her job.

Sanchez believes the studies comparing Winchester House Wages to private facilities didn’t account for salaries for long-time employees like her.

“How much am I supposed to make for 21 years of service? I started at $6.46” an hour, she said. Sanchez now earns $18 an hour as a rehabilitation assistant.

Employees and members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 would still have the opportunity to bargain for wages with HDG, said Burton.

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

Winchester House should continue to be a safety net for residents who are supported by Medicaid and Medicare, said officials who opposed the HDG contract. Proponents assured residents that the contract will improve their daily lives, and that they should not worry about having a place to live. All of the current residents will be able to continue to stay at Winchester House, Burton said.

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.

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 agreement said.

Burton warned officials he would push to close Winchester House, if the HDG contract wasn’t approved.

One resident is concerned that care will decline if the employees’ paychecks and jobs are cut.

A former Abbott Laboratories administrative assistant, Monica Behnke, 79, who has lived at Winchester House for seven years, said she has mixed feelings about what will happen, now that the contract has been approved.

“We don’t know if they’re going to keep the same staff, Behnke said. “We don’t know if they’re going to keep these people or if they’re going to get somebody they pay less. That’s our concern — what kind of CNAs and registered nurses we’re gonna get.”



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