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Peoria County Board Votes To Close Heddington Oaks

Peoria County Government via Facebook
The April 23, 2020 Peoria County Board meeting was held remotely due to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions.

The Peoria County Board voted unanimously Thursday to begin winding down operations at the Heddington Oaks nursing home.

Board members came to the consensus that while the county's nursing homes had a successful 172-year-run, it was time to close the financially-foundering facility, which completely drained its reserve fund from more than $17 million in the black to more than $1.4 million in the red in the last few years as it struggled to attract residents and qualified staff.

It was a somber and sometimes emotional two-hour long meeting, with more than 30 minutes worth of public comments from residents, family members, and others read into the record by County Clerk Rachael Parker and County Administrator Scott Sorrel.

The meeting was held via teleconference due to current social distancing restrictions limiting gatherings in place due to COVID-19.

All 17 county board members also weighed in on the decision before the vote was cast.

Sharon Williams chairs the County Health Committee that ultimately recommended closure.

"It's been a long three years. We've done a lot of work, we've looked at every angle possible. We've even looked outside the box for what we could do to turn it around," she said.

She said her own mother-in-law has received excellent care at Heddington Oaks, and it will be difficult finding other long-term care facility for her.

"This is the toughest vote I think I'm ever going to take as a county board member," Williams said.

Peoria County first got into the nursing home business in 1848. The former Bel-Wood nursing home was constructed in 1966, and remained open until the lack of a sprinkler system and asbestos issues forced its closure. Heddington Oaks opened in 2013.

"It survived the Civil War. It survived World War I, the Depression, World War II. And now I'm going to let it fail, and do something that of course, I'm totally disheartened about," said board member Phil Salzer.

Jimmy Dillon, whose district includes the West Peoria nursing home, said one of his proudest moments was cutting the ribbon when it first opened. But he said the board was elected to make tough decisions.

"I'm left with no other choice to vote to close it for the betterment of the community. And I know that's what no one wants to hear. And that's not what I want to tell my neighbors, who are all worried what comes next," Dillon said.

Plans for the nursing home site following closure aren't clear yet. Dillon said there are no plans to turn it into an opioid addiction treatment site, contrary to rumors otherwise, but there is no definitive path forward either, beyond continuing to maintain the property until it's sold off.

Sorrel said ultimately, Heddington Oaks was partially a victim of the times.

"We saw a dramatic shift in societal norms in how we care for our elderly. It was widely expected across the long-term care industry, that the Greatest Generation and Baby Boomers would follow their parents and go to a nursing home," he said. "Instead, we saw a shift, and our elder population is choosing to live independently as long as possible, and then choosing to live with family. And skilled nursing care such as what Heddington Oaks delivers has become a last resort."

Sorrel said those trends led to fewer residents, and thus, declining revenues. The nursing home struggled to fill its full allotment of 214 beds, or to attract the 28 Medicare patients it needed to remain sustainable despite years of trying, Sorrel said.

Peoria County Board chairman Andrew Rand thanked board members for making the difficult decision of "giving up on dreams that we can't realize by keeping this alive."

Rand said the facility was costing taxpayers roughly $36,000 per patient.

"We had 1,028 employees when I started when I was first elected [in 2008]. We're employing 728 today. That is the condition of local government all across this country, not just in Illinois," Rand said. "We're trying to live within our means and respect the taxpayers who I think elected us to do the very best with the funds that we have and make decisions based on long-term sustainability."

Heddington Oaks employs 170 people. The 150 unionized employees working at the facility were issued layoff notices last week.

The state Health Facilities and Review Board could meet in June at the earliest to approve Peoria County's plans to close Heddington Oaks. Once final approval is granted, Peoria County will have 60 days to exit the nursing home business.

"Sometimes good things must come to an end, and unfortunately, I think this is one of those times," said county board member Paul Rosenbohm.

A new county senior advocate will work with families to relocate the nursing home's 140 residents to other nearby facilities in the coming months.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.