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Stephenson County Board ushers in a new board for an old debate -- the future of the county-run nursing home

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The new year ushered in new leadership in the Stephenson County Board and possibly another approach to the county’s pressing issue – the county-run nursing home.

Like nursing homes across the country, the Stephenson Nursing Center - Walnut Acres has faced financial challenges, with some tied to the pandemic, billing and coding errors.

Stephenson County Board member Ronnie Bush has represented District B since 2016 and sits on the committee overseeing the nursing home.

Bush said he understands the nursing homes financial challenges, but the institution is still provides an invaluable services.

“We’ve got people’s lives in that building." Bush said, "People who need that building, and people who work there that we need to really think about."

A contentious debate to sell or keep the nursing home has gone on for several years, with the board in 2021 voting to sell, only to change course and decide to keep the nursing home. Later, a vote to put a non-binding referendum to voters on whether to maintain the nursing home failed.

To address the financial strain put on nursing homes, state legislators in the spring passed a deal to increase Medicaid reimbursements and increase pay for certified nursing assistants. Burnout and low wages have led to higher turnover in CNA’s -- and outsourcing skilled care often costs more.

Nursing homes though would have to opt-in the state program to get repaid for increasing wages. In October, the Stephenson County board voted 11-10 against participating in it.

Bush is the only Democrat left on the board’s nursing home committee after the newly elected chair Scott H. Helms, a Republican, removed long-time Chair Democrat Casey Anthony. Helms as chairman selects committee chairs and committee members.

Bush and the former board chairman Bill Hadley, who also sits on the committee, said they're concerned that someone with so much knowledge and commitment to the nursing home would be removed.

Hadley says while he chose some Democrats to lead committees when he found their expertise were a good match, he said Helms has slated all leadership positions with Republicans.

“I would have done things a little different, build a coalition to bring everybody in Republicans and Democrats together,” Hadley said.

“He has isolated the Democrats," he said. "And then as a Republican, he's isolated me, in a way, and has put people in different positions that I don't think is right."

Anthony was replaced with Republican Nicole Baker. WNIJ was not able to reach Baker for comment.

“She should be the chairman of that committee,” Hadley said. “She has turned things around out there. And it's got things running.”

Several news outlets have reported that, while Anthony is no longer on the board, she plans to continue to advocate for the nursing home.

The county hired a new managing company and nursing home administrator last year.

According to the most recent county budget summary, in fiscal year 2021, as the pandemic raged, the nursing center ran a deficit of more than two million dollars. Casey Anthony told WNIJ that for this fiscal year, the management company predicts a $100,000 dollar deficit and to be in the black for fiscal year 2023.

WNIJ reached out to Chairman Helms for an interview, but he would only agree to one if he was permitted to review his comments before being aired.

He did provide a statement that in part reads: “We will no longer make decisions that are not supported by factual and verified data or that are based strictly on emotion. We owe it to all residents of Stephenson County to conduct our business in a way that provides needed but not duplicated services. “

Vice Chairman Timothy S. Whalen, a Republican, joins the board this year after last serving in 2006. He also sits on the nursing center committee. He said the nursing home is the county’s top issue.

“I think, if it's if it's fiscally sound, and the county as a whole would like to support that, that's, you know, that's something locally, I think we should do,” Whalen said.

“But I'm probably more on the fiscal conservative side of things,” he said.

He says private nursing homes in the area may be able to fill the need being served by the county-run home.

Whalen, as did other Stephenson County members, said the board ought to consider a binding referendum for residents to weigh in on the future of the nursing home.

And Stephenson County isn’t alone in wading through these challenges:

Last year in Winnebago County, residents voted in favor of a referendum to increase property taxes to support their county-run nursing home River Bluff. But the Winnebago County board eventually voted against increasing taxes. The DeKalb County Board voted to move forward with the sale of its nursing home in October.

Board downsizes

The new year also ushered a change in the size of the board. Previously the board held 22 seats. It now holds 16.

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.