Peoria County will likely close Heddington Oaks by end of 2020

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Board members scheduled to vote on April 23.

PEORIA COUNTY, Ill. (WMBD) — After more than 170 years in the nursing home business, Peoria County wants out.

On April 23, Board members will decide whether or not to close the county-owned and operated senior care facility, Heddington Oaks. The vote is expected to pass with majority or unanimous support, according to board chairman Andrew Rand. The board plans to eventually sell the facility to a private firm.

“The county board has come to the conclusion that Heddington Oaks is no longer a viable investment and will start the process to close and sell,” said Peoria County administrator Scott Sorrel.

“We are hopeful to be done with the process by the end of the year,” said Rand.

Rand and other county leaders are expected to make the announcement on Friday. A special executive committee meeting will take place Monday, three days prior to the next scheduled board meeting and anticipated vote. Discussions about Heddington’s future have taken place since 2016, according to Sharon Williams, county health committee chairman.

The decision is “not an expense issue, but a census issue,” said Sorrel, citing the seven-year-old facility’s inability to adequately occupy beds. Out of 214 beds, only 140 people currently reside at Heddington Oaks. The facility has never reached capacity.

Sorrel attributes the woes to several factors: (1) The Affordable Care Act changed guidelines and sparked significant declines in the nursing home market by granting patients options for other means of care. (2) The state’s Medicaid program changed the reimbursement formula, under former Gov. Bruce Rauner, and the money does not fully cover the cost of care. And (3) more people are choosing to forego nursing homes and instead, remain at home or with relatives, if possible.

At one point, the number of Medicaid patients dropped so low, the county shut down a 50 person wing for nine months. Meanwhile, staffing has also been an issue due to national, state and local shortages of licensed nurses, said Sorrel.

Financially, board members planned only to use properly taxes to pay down debt, but due to lack of revenue, the county is losing at least $2 million annually in operations, said Rand. IN 2019, Sorrel said Heddington Oaks loses $34 per bed daily, amounting to roughly $1.8 million in losses over 12 months.

In 2010, Peoria County issued $42 million in bonds to build Heddington, and to this point, has only mostly paid on the interest. The board still owes $41 million on the facility.

Board members could place a referendum on the upcoming ballot to increase the maximum the county could levy in property taxes — which voters supported in 1983 and 2003. However, the board could only ask up to 10 cents, a four cents increase, and Sharon Williams, county health committee chairman, says the extra money would not be enough.

“Why ask voters for more money when it can’t cover the cost?” replied Williams, who says the board wants to be very sensitive to tax payer money.

Williams, whose mother-in-law resides at Heddington Oaks, said the financial situation changed her position about closing the facility.

Peoria County has owned or operated a nursing care facility since before the Civil War, and over the century, it has become part of the community’s D.N.A. The county health committee created an advocacy group to keep families informed about the process and aid in the transition.

In 2013, the county built Heddington Oaks, a $42 million state-of-the-art facility, to replace a deteriorating Bel-Wood Nursing Home. The latter facility operated for more than 40 years. Heddington will last less than a decade.

The closure will force dozens of residents and roughly 170 staff to relocate; though Sorrel believes there are enough beds and job vacancies in the Peoria area to absorb them.

“It’s our goal to make sure all residents find the best fit for them in a facility that has a bed available,” said Sorrel.

“We still have to take care of families,” said Rand.

Peoria is the latest community to part ways with its county-owned senior care facility. In 2019, Champaign County finalized the sale of its nursing home to a private firm, after racking up millions in unpaid bills. Earlier this year, the Rock Island County board approved the sale of the county-owned facility, according to the Quad Cities Times. Other communities have either sold or leased their facilities to private firms, as well.

Though the Peoria County board can vote to close the facility next week, selling the property is a very different process. By law, voters must give the board permission to sell the facility, and the buyer cannot be a a for-profit organization. The referendum could be placed on the ballot in November 2020 or April 2021.

When asked, What if taxpayers say no? — Williams said, “I don’t think they will.”

“Should we be the safety net when there are other businesses that can be safety nets?” posed Rand, who also assured the announcement was already in the works and is not associated to COVID-19.

“I think we have to what’s best for Peoria County,” he said.

The full board will meet on Thursday, April 23 at 6 p.m. for the vote. If approved, the county will then file necessary documents with the state.

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