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DeKalb County's nursing home staff and residents brace for change leading to final sale vote

DeKalb County Rehab & Nursing Center
Jenna Dooley
DeKalb County Rehab & Nursing Center

Residents and staff at the DeKalb County Nursing Rehab brace for change as the DeKalb County Board are expected to take the final vote on the sale of the nearly 170-year-old institution.

Mary Roman a resident of the DeKalb County Rehab and Nursing Center sits in her room as solar-powered toys click as they dance, displayed on her windowsill. On one afternoon WNIJ spoke with her before the day’s activities began. The day’s highlight was armchair yoga, but the 88-year-old said she prefers games with clues.

“I just like things that I need my mind for,” Roman said. “I don't want to lose that. And I'm gonna live to be 100, I can't lose it yet.”

WNIJ previously spoke with Roman in July before the DeKalb County Board voted 17 to 5 to begin negotiations with Illuminate HC for a final sale of the home. The for-profit company also known as SKLD runs several nursing facilities in Michigan and offered to buy the home for over eight million dollars.

Also at the July meeting, the board failed to place a referendum on the November ballot to give voters a say on whether to increase property taxes to keep the nursing home. Democrats Kiara Jones and Michelle Pickett both of the fifth district were not present for the vote that ended in a tie. Jones resigned in August.

Allegations of mismanagement over the years, declining resident numbers and staffing shortages due to COVID led to an estimated seven million budget deficit.

Roman said if the new company keeps the staff and administration intact, she’s okay with the sale.

“But I don't know what kind of things they have that they do in their other nursing homes,” she said. “But I'd like to keep it the way it is.”

Nursing home staff members hope for the same, but say change is likely under new ownership.

Chuck Simpson, a restorative aide and the facility’s AFSCME union president, has worked at the nursing home for nearly 30 years, and said for-profit nursing homes are interested solely in making a profit.

“And, so they will cut corners to make the bottom line better,” Simpson said. “And so we're afraid that, you know, and their families and residents are afraid that the care is going to suffer. And so they get very upset they on a daily basis. They ask us, are you going anywhere? You're not going to leave us?”

After the sale vote in July, a wave of employees quit in light of the uncertainty of what may come under new ownership. The board passed a bonus pay to try to retain workers.

In September, the county and the union agreed to a new contract that is set to expire in December 2023 just as Illuminate may begin taking full ownership of the home.

While union members told WNIJ they receive comparable pay to other nursing homes, they also receive benefits as county employees such as a pension and affordable health insurance, which are benefits much harder to obtain in the private sector.

But they said it’s the culture of the nursing home that keeps them there.

Brandy Hurst has worked in the activities department for the last two years and said she looks forward to getting ready for work and starting her day at the nursing home.

“And I mean, it's just it is it's like they're your grandma and grandpa's that you're going to see for the day,” she said.

The number of options for the elderly who depend on Medicaid and Medicare to cover their stay at similar rating level as the DeKalb Nursing home are slim. According to the Medicare.gov website, within a 25-mile radius of DeKalb, folks would have to travel to Kane or McHenry County to receive comparable levels of care.

Simpson, the union president said, “The county board chairman, Mr. Frieders, had said, ‘Oh, for God's sake, is still going to be a nursing home.’” “He's wrong. It's going to be a nursing facility. It takes special people to make it a home. And I'm afraid that with changes coming, you know, it might not have that home feeling.”

John Frieders, a Republican from Sandwich, representing the 12th district, disagreed with those sentiments.

“We expect it to continue for many years as a nursing home and into the future, with good quality care for the county,” Frieders said. “That's certainly is our expectation. The county could not continue to function running a nursing home that has in the last number of years lost millions of dollars."

AFSCME Council 31 representing the home’s union employees hasn’t resigned on the matter and seek to convince some members to vote no in the final sale vote.

Anders Lindall, the union’s spokesperson told WNIJ they sent out mailers in certain DeKalb County districts to make residents aware of the possible long-term effects of a sale.

A DeKalb County official said the final sale vote of the nursing home will likely happen on the October 19 full county board meeting and will need a two-thirds majority vote to be approved.

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.