Much attention has been given to the election of local officials on April 4, but there is as issue that is equally pressing. That is the fate of the Champaign County Nursing Home (CCNH). Voters will be presented with two referendum items. The first is whether or not to authorize the County Board to raise a property tax levy from its present 3 cents per $100 assessed value to the legal maximum of 10 cents. The second item asks voters whether or not to authorize the County Board to dispose of the nursing home, presumably either by selling it to a private nursing home company or some other private user, or just shutting it down. As one who has had a mother in the nursing home for almost four years and has been supportive of it since then, I urge voters to vote YES on the increased tax levy, and to vote NO on the authorization to dispose of the home.
Early History of this Venerable Institution
To fully understand the mission of the Champaign County Nursing Home and what it represents, and has represented, to the citizens of Champaign County, one must know something about its history, its evolution, and the longstanding commitment of the people of Champaign County to institutions that serve the most vulnerable among us.
This history goes back to 1859 when a County Poor Farm was established about four miles from the city of Urbana. The farm had both fields for the growing of crops and animals that sustained the most needy. A barn was created on the model of the round barns at the University of Illinois in Urbana. In 1866, the first building was constructed in Urbana at 1701 E. Main Street. The cost of this building was $7,664. It served the impoverished residents until 1910, when a new, two-story building was erected. The second story of the building was designated as the Champaign County Hospital.
In 1936, a west wing of the building was constructed to serve as a contagion unit. It was used mainly to isolate polio victims. In 1960, an east wing was added as a nursing home that could accommodate 198 senior citizens. In 1973, the building that preceded the existing one was built was built to accommodate both full-time and day residents.
The 2002 Referendum
By 2002, the building that had been erected in 1973 was experiencing severe deterioration, so severe that it was noncompliant with some of the codes established by the Illinois Department of Public Health. There were three possible options opened to the County Board: bring the 1973 building up to code and increase its efficiency, privatize it and let the new owners bring it up to code, or construct a new building. It was decided early on that modernizing the old building would not be cost-effective. While there was some support for privatization among members of the Board, it was decided to present two referenda items to the public. The first item asked the public for authority to issue $20 million in general obligation bonds to build a new building. The bonds would be paid by a property tax costing home owners 7 cents per $100 assessed value. The second item asked the voters to authorize a 3 cent per $100 assessed value to provide an operating subsidy for the maintenance of the nursing home. There was an intense campaign to educate the public on the value and need of the CCNH, a campaign in which this author was an active participant. Both requests were approved handily by the voters.
Several years after the 2002 referendum, some personnel and management problems arose. The County Board decided that these issues might be best dealt with by a private management company. So in 2008 MPA, a management company based in St. Louis, was brought in. At the same time, the County Board created a body called the CCNH Advisory Board of Directors. They were established as advisory to the County Board, its eyes and ears on how the home was doing under the public ownership/private management regime.
This worked relatively well so long as the state was processing Medicaid applications for CCNH in a relatively timely manner. The home is heavy on the Medicaid side, making up 62% of the residents. Being larger than any other nursing home in the area, it has the most Medicaid residents. However, as the financial situation of the state has degenerated, the state’s processing of Medicaid applications has lagged very far behind That imposes an incredible strain on the cash flow of the home. Some vendors are now hinting that they might stop servicing the home. So, through no fault of the CCNH, the situation has become dire.
A Lovely Facility and a Dedicated Work Force Meeting Community Needs
That one-story building has five wings. Three of them are skilled-care wings that serve both Medicaid and private pay residents, with, as already noted, a slight edge toward the former. Another wing is for people with dementia. The fifth is a rehabilitation wing. It houses short-term respite patients and offers physical, speech, occupational, and restorative therapies.
Our public nursing home is open to anyone who needs it and imposes no financial burden on the sons or daughters of its residents. Many of us have had parents or grandparents cared for in this facility and we have not had to pay for that care aside from the portion of our taxes that go for it. Its mission is to provide that care and to give us peace of mind that our loved ones are in a safe and clean environment. The fact CCNH has survived to this point, while most Illinois counties have not maintained that institutional tradition to public care and empathy for the most vulnerable among us, speaks to the shared values of our local citizenry and to the very special value of our caring public facility.
Back in 2002, the County Board could have asked the voters to approve the maximum 10 cents per $100, but chose to ask for less than a third of that. The urgency then was building deterioration, not a deterioration in the financial condition of the state. We got a state-of-the-art building thanks to voter support. What CCNH needs now is for voters to agree to the full permissible 10 cents per $100.
There are other efforts in the community to support the CCNH. Just last month, in January, a group called Friends of Champaign County Nursing Home, to which I belong, launched a campaign to create a Foundation for the Nursing Home. While it cannot hope to bring in enough to support the full operating support of the home, this manifestation of support by community members does aim to make a difference in the quality of life of the residents.
This is just one more indication of the gratitude of people whose loved ones have been cared for by the CCNH, which imposes no financial burden on anyone except the individual residents before they spend down their assets. If there was ever a public service that met the financial and psychological needs of those of us who have to deal with aging relatives and friends, it is this nursing home. When this is taken into account, the additional 7 cents in property tax per $100 assessed value is a pittance to pay for our peace of mind.
Again, please vote YES on the tax authorization, and NO on the authorization to close the CCNH.