Nursing home decision moves to county boardThe four newest members of the St. Croix County Health and Human Services Board didn’t waver when faced with public pressure at a special meeting last Thursday.
By: By Jeff Holmquist, New Richmond News
The four newest members of the St. Croix County Health and Human Services Board didn’t waver when faced with public pressure at a special meeting last Thursday.
A capacity crowd was on hand in Hudson for what some consider the beginning of the final showdown in the battle to either save or close the publicly-owned St. Croix Health Center nursing home.
Nine county residents rose to speak in favor of keeping the facility open and available to the community’s aging population. They pointed to two separate non-binding referendums overwhelmingly approved by voters as evidence that the public wants the nursing home to continue to care for the elderly and the infirm, even if it means taxpayer dollars partially subsidize the facility.
In the end, Tim Hood, Fred Yoerg, Tom Hawksford and Chris Kilber all voted to recommend that the county close its publicly-owned St. Croix Health Center nursing home.
In a resolution that will be forwarded to the full St. Croix County Board on Oct. 2, the four votes will be listed alongside votes from Fred Horne and Deb Rasmussen recommending the county build a new nursing home facility to better compete in the nursing home market. HHS Board members Roger Larson and Leon Berenschot voted to recommend that the nursing home be operated as it is, with cost-cutting measures to the wages and benefits of employees to lessen the impact on taxes.
The meeting was peppered with a few outbursts of emotion, as residents vocalized their frustration over the direction the HHS Board was headed. Chairman Horne had to quiet the room on several occasions and plead for civility in the proceedings.
The morning meeting, moved to the St. Croix County Courthouse to accommodate the large crowd, began with comments from residents who were given a few minutes to argue their case. All who spoke favored a path that would either build a new nursing home or continue operating the facility as it is.
Ellen “Scottie” Ard said the nursing home dates back to 1899 and has been providing care for the county’s vulnerable adults ever since.
If the county nursing home is closed, she warned, the likely result will be that people will have to send their loved ones far from home to get the care they need. She asked the board to consider the human costs rather than the fiscal costs in the situation.
“We need to place humanity above the dollars,” she said.
Rick Prokash, Star Prairie, said St. Croix County residents have spoken and are willing to support the nursing home with tax dollars. He urged the board to give up on talk of closing the facility and focus on making it a viable business venture.
“The nursing home has become a very emotional football,” he said. “It’s been kicked around too long. Let it go.”
Despite estimates to the contrary, Kim Dupre of Emerald said the nursing home’s financial support from the tax levy is small compared to the overall budget. She said the nursing home costs each St. Croix County property owner about $20 a year to keep open.
That’s a bargain, she claimed, because it provides a “safety net” for those needing care.
Dupre said one reason the nursing home is in such bad financial shape is because of previous poor business decisions made by the county board. Had the facility been allowed to construct a new nursing home, and add an assisted living complex, the nursing home would be able to compete with the private facilities and continue the five-star quality care they provide, she said.
Richard “Buzz” Marzolf pointed to the closing of Eau Claire County’s county-owned nursing home as an example of what can happen if such a decision is made here. He said it is now costing those county taxpayers more to “farm out” residents to facilities elsewhere than what it was costing them to house them in the county home.
“I strongly urge you to weigh, to consider and to carefully study and reflect on the long range consequences of closing our county nursing home,” he said.
When the discussion returned to the HHS Board, none of the voting members had changed their minds on the matter.
Horne said he thought the nursing home could be saved through budget cuts and the construction of a new facility. Rasmussen agreed.
Larson and Berenschot favored a plan to cut costs, but continue to operate the nursing home in its present, aging facility. Previous estimates from consultant Larry Lester suggest that nursing homes in older buildings will lose residents to newer buildings in almost all cases.
The other four HHS Board members in attendance were in support of closing the nursing home.
Hawksford said St. Croix County voters were duped into believing that the nursing home only required a $330,000 subsidy from taxpayers when they voted on the last referendum. The tax impact is closer to $1.5 million, he charged.
Horne countered, suggesting that voters know full well what they support and they chose to back the nursing home.
“I’m not smarter than my constituents,” he said. “My constituents are informed.”
Hood said those who were given the complete story did not support the nursing home’s continued operation, noting that he was frustrated by the amount of misinformation that was circulated to voters. One example, he said, is the thought that the county nursing home is the “place of last resort” and a safety net for aging residents. He said private facilities also take Medicare and Medicaid patients.
He said building another nursing home made no sense, as there are enough open beds in the county’s private facilities (about 73 beds at last count) to meet the current demand for care. Putting up another new facility would only serve to harm the facilities that have already invested heavily in their buildings.
“Why would we do that?” he asked. “It would be like building a McDonalds across from another McDonalds.”
Answering the charge that the county board is to blame for the nursing home’s current financial woes, Hood said it has more to do with the employee union that has negotiated a high wage and benefits package that has drained the facility’s resources. Compared to other nursing homes in the area, St. Croix Health Center employees get paid much more than average and have better benefits than average, according to recent studies.
Hood said the county needs to spend taxpayer funds wisely and it makes no sense to spend money on a business model that is “built to fail.”
Yoerg agreed, adding that the private sector is stepping up to meet the care needs so it’s time for the county to get out of the business.
Following the HHS Board meeting, nursing home backers sent out a plea for voters to attend the Oct. 2 county board meeting and show their support for the continued operation of the facility.