This private hiring is good public policy

For decades, Lake County has provided a publicly run nursing home for elderly and ill residents who couldn’t afford long-term health care.

Winchester House has operated with the blessing of residents who support it with tax dollars to serve as a safety net for the county’s poor.

But county officials say they can no longer afford Winchester House, because rising costs are outstripping the county’s ability to operate it. A new model is needed to continue that service.

That model surfaced recently when county board members voted 15-8 mostly along party lines to contract with a private firm to run the Libertyville facility. The decision represents the kind of prudent, practical and thoughtful management that increasingly is making privatization an appealing option for public services.

At issue in Lake County are changes in the nursing home industry that make a county-run facility inefficient and impractical. Winchester House faces declining patient demand — only about half of its 360 beds are filled — amid skyrocketing health care costs and expensive building improvement needs.

A recession and a lingering anemic economy have only magnified those problems.

The county will pay $50,000 per month for Health Dimensions Group of Minneapolis to run Winchester House for two years, with two additional one-year renewals possible. The company has experience taking over formerly public nursing home facilities.

The deal is expected to save the county $1.5 million per year — money the county says could help fund the long-stalled construction of a new, smaller Winchester House expected to cost $32 million to $36 million.

Even with the deal, the county is not washing its hands of Winchester House, as it will retain the license and control the facility. “We will always have ownership of the house,” said board Chairman David Stolman, a Buffalo Grove Republican. “We are bringing in someone to help run it.”

Governments should be examining services they provide to see if any can be contracted out and performed more efficiently and at a lower cost by someone else. It is happening with snowplowing and police protection to name just a couple of services.

Opponents, including some county board members and labor union representatives, say the proposal would result in lower wages and reduced benefits for workers. Company and county officials have acknowledged that may happen and are working to minimize the disruption.

However, if the county is forced to close Winchester House, the jobs and the service will vanish altogether. It’s time for the county to get out of the day-to-day job of running a nursing home, and Lake County’s well-considered decision to operate Winchester House privately is the right way to do that.