Emotional debate over the future of Hope Creek Care Center has already divided passionate supporters and tax-weary homeowners.
One thing that remains undisputed, though, is the quality of care at Hope Creek.
For nearly three years, Merwin Baker has called the county-owned care facility home. The East Moline location allows Margaret, his wife of 67 years, to visit every day.
Each night, one of his 11 children is able to put him to bed.
“It was never our plan to allow my mom or my dad to go to a nursing home,” daughter Chris Baker tearfully said.
But when Merwin could no longer walk, and needed memory care as well, Hope Creek became a blessing for the family.
“It’s hard to see him like he is, but he’s treated so well, and that – that makes all the difference in the world,” said Chris Baker.
“Financially, it’s a struggle.”
Quality care, though, comes at a high price.
Rock Island County Board member Steve Meersman chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, and he’ll be the first to tell you that Hope Creek is in dire financial straits.
“Right now, financially, it’s a struggle,” Meersman said.
Many of Hope Creeks problems stem from the State of Illinois, which is supposed to reimburse county-owned nursing homes for the care of Medicaid residents. Meersman says the state short-changes Hope Creek nearly $9,000 a day, though, for the care of those residents.
Additionally, Meersman said the nursing home industry has documented a nearly four-percent annual increase in costs like food, utilities, and other supplies. The reimbursement rate for Medicare and Medicaid, though, has been flat for almost four years.
Rock Island County has already taken out a $1 million loan to cover day-to-day costs at Hope Creek. That will be paid off when property taxes are collected in June, but Meersman admits the problem will be far from solved.
“We may have to turn right around and borrow those same monies again,” said Meersman.
In the November 2014 election, voters will be asked to raise the tax levy for Hope Creek from .1 percent to .25 percent. That would bring in nearly $3.2 million more each year for the care center. Currently, taxpayers spend about $2 million a year on the home.
“It will give us that window of four years to, hopefully, make changes in the way the operation is,” Meersman said, “and, hopefully, reimbursement from the state and the feds will change.”
If the referendum is successful, taxpayers would see about $50 in additional annual property taxes on a $100,000 home. If the referendum were to fail, Meersman said “severe changes” would need to be considered.
“That could mean anywhere from a lease to a sale, or whatever. We would have a window of about ten-and-a-half months to start making those decisions,” said Meersman.
Lessons from Mercer County
Despite opposition to a potential sale of Hope Creek, just south of the Quad Cities in Aledo, Illinois, leaders call a similar move “absolutely” a good thing.
In 2013, Genesis Health System bought the Mercer County Nursing Home and the adjoining hospital from the County for $2.25 million.
“Soon after we came on board, we were able to turn around the operations financially, move it from a loss to a positive,” said Ted Rogalski, administrator at the hospital, now called Genesis Medical Center – Aledo.
Four years prior, in 2009, Genesis began managing the county’s hospital. Since then, the hospital has gone from a $700,000 annual loss to an average annual margin of $500,000. Two years later, Genesis began managing the nursing home as well.
After the sale was finalized, Genesis began pouring nearly $12 million into renovations at the hospital, and upgrading the nursing home as well. Day-to-day operations at the nursing home, now called Genesis Senior Living, remained largely unchanged throughout the sale.
“As a rule, probably 95 percent of the employees chose to stay and wanted to stay; and we wanted them to stay because we have excellent employees,” said Myron Higgins, administrator at Genesis Senior Living.
Ted Pappas, chair of Mercer County’s finance committee, agrees that the sale was a good move for the county.
“It’s clearly a quality of care benefit,” said Pappas.
Pappas admits, though, that the anticipated tax breaks for Mercer County residents are largely yet to be seen, as the Board has used any extra cash from the sale to balance its budget and fully fund its retirement fund.
“It was hoped that the sale of the nursing home and hospital would have a direct and immediate impact for the property tax-payers of Mercer County,” said Pappas. “The reality is that it’s going to take a number of years.”
Pappas and Genesis leaders agree, though, that county-owned healthcare facilities are quickly becoming a thing of the past, and that the best chance for success is diversifying or joining a large company that also offers assisted living, at-home care, etc.
“I think any stand-alone nursing home in the future has great storm clouds ahead of it,” said Pappas.
Filling a need
Meersman, though, has heard all those arguments before, and insists Hope Creek still feels a need in the community.
“There are a lot of things that government does not belong in, that should belong in the private sector,” said Meersman. “But for me, until the private sector can prove to me that they’ll take care of these residents the way they need to be taken care of, I will fight to keep the home open.”
At any given time, Hope Creek is usually caring for 58-65 percent Medicaid residents, while the rest are a mix of veterans, private pay, hospice care, and Medicare.
Private homes typically take a much smaller percentage of Medicaid residents.
“A for-profit home, the quality of care, I can’t say it’s any better or any worse than that. But what can change is the payer mix,” said Meersman.
That’s exactly what worries Chris Baker the most: if there would still be room for her father if Hope Creek were sold.
“If the state assisted Dad in finding another home, if this closed, or if they leased it…. Where would they move him? It could be Galesburg, it could be Peoria, and we couldn’t be a part of his everyday life,” said Baker.
And there does appear to be one thing that people on both sides can agree on: that the debate over Hope Creek’s future is likely just beginning.