While not a final decision regarding the future of Winchester House, the Lake County Board on Tuesday decided to test the market in a move that could mark the beginning of the end of the county's longtime involvement with the nursing home.
The board voted 19-1 to seek proposals from skilled nursing operators to lease the existing facility at Winchester Road and Milwaukee Avenue on the county's government campus in Libertyville, while building a replacement elsewhere.
The decision to proceed was based on a unanimous recommendation from an advisory group comprised of five health care professionals and county board members Steve Carlson of Grandwood Park and Carol Calabresa of Libertyville. The group has been reviewing Winchester operations for seven years.
Basically, the vote allows the county to see what options are available on the open market. Winchester House perennially has run big deficits despite adjustments, such as the move in 2011 to an outside operator, and currently has a budget shortfall of more than $3 million.
"This is just a solid move forward," county board Chairman Aaron Lawlor said.
Despite the numbers, it was not an easy choice because of the county's longtime involvement with Winchester House. It opened in 1847 as a poor farm, and has had a continuing mission to provide a place for those who can't afford nursing home care.
Several board members said their final decision could be different.
"I need to trust the process and also the recommendation," said board member Bonnie Thomson Carter of Ingleside. "I don't know what the outcome will be. I don't think any of us do. But this is a big step forward."
Audrey Nixon of North Chicago, the only dissenter, said she had mixed emotions.
"I just can't," support the measure, she said.
Carlson, who has been on the advisory group since it was formed, urged others to keep an open mind.
"I don't know how I'll respond to the (request for proposals). All this is a beginning." he said. "Depending on what comes back, we'll have some decisions to make."
In 2011, the advisory group recommended an outside operator as a way to save money and continue to provide quality care. Health Dimensions Group of Minneapolis, which still manages the facility, was hired to run Winchester House.
Significant changes in the health care environment, including the Affordable Care Act, Illinois' move to a managed care system and emergence of other safety net options for those who need skilled nursing care, were part of the rationale for the most recent recommendation.
"We are going to carry on this very long term tradition this county has had of helping people in need," Calabresa said.
Respondents will be given one month to reply. A review of responses could involve announced or unannounced visits to other facilities.
One of the four components of the request will be that the new facility serve current and future Winchester House residents.
Some board members asked that employees and staff also be considered in the document, and a union representative said any new company should adhere to the collective bargaining agreement.