Troubled DeKalb County nursing home’s future again in state hands

County nursing center still under county ownership, for now, as County Board rejects latest sale changeup offer

Staunch opponent of the sale, Mike Ostrom, stands behind as Illuminate HC principal Avi Zuckerman spoke to the DeKalb County Board on Sept. 27, 2023 about his request to exclude Saba Healthcare principals from the purchase of the DeKalb County Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.

SYCAMORE – It’s been 14 months since the DeKalb County Board decided to sell the DeKalb County Rehabilitation and Nursing Center to a private buyer, but this week a unanimous decision by elected leaders stalled the sale yet again.

It’s a saga in a controversial and often heated debate about the future of the home, which found itself in $7 million of debt due to what county officials alleged was mismanagement under previous administrators, negligent billing that halted revenue and ailing resident numbers. In the time since, county staff and elected officials have determined that the best course of action is to sell the facility in order to stem the flow of taxpayer cash needed to keep the center afloat, and for the center’s sustainable future. Votes to place the center’s future in the hands of the taxpayers via referendum have failed at the County Board level twice over the past year.

Since discussion began in April 2021, however, center staff, residents and community members have pushed back, crying afoul at a sale and voicing concerns that a new owner would not be in the facility’s best interest.

A Wednesday vote on a new contract proposed by the buyer who was already under an $8.3 million agreement to buy the home was rejected unanimously by the County Board.

“It certainly seems to me the more energy could have and should have been spent on finding strategies to save this important community resource rather than dumping it,” DeKalb County resident Mary Hatch said. “I urge you to carefully consider this and to say no. Once gone, this home will never be ours again. I urge you to think of our loved ones and, for God’s sake, think of yours.”

“I urge you to carefully consider this and to say no. Once gone, this home will never be ours again and I urge you to think of our loved ones. And for God’s sake, think of yours.”

—  Mary Hatch, DeKalb County resident opposed to nursing center sale
Avi Zuckerman walked into a crowded room ahead of the Sept 27, 2023 DeKalb County Special Board meeting.

Avi Zuckerman of Evanston-based Illuminate HC, under contract to buy the center, asked the County Board a week ago to consider a new contract for the sale without another company, Skokie-based Saba Healthcare’s attached. Saba and Illuminate were the only two companies to bid on the nursing home in 2022. The County Board initially voted against Saba’s purchase offer, choosing Illuminate instead. Principals for the two companies, however, joined forces in April to form DeKalb Healthcare Holdings LLC for joint purchase of the center, records filed online with the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office show.

Zuckerman told the County Board on Wednesday he felt a change to the contract would be the “best chance of closing the sale.”

“As you guys heard, from the Illinois State Board ... throughout the transcripts there were concerns and obstacles that were brought up, and as well as from from the people here,” Zuckerman said. “There were a lot of concerns about Saba and the operational performance, and I thought there was an opportunity here with them no longer needing to be in the picture to move forward to a successful closing and a successful operation of the facility going forward.”

The County Board unanimously rejected Zuckerman’s proposal to exclude Saba principals from the contract. The board also unanimously voted down a proposal to amend state documentation – a certificate of need – for the sale. The certificate of need changes would have been needed in the event the Board approved excluding Saba principals Moshe Blonder and Aaron Singer from ownership, documents show.

“I am so excited and pleased, and surprised. I think it was just an excellent decision on the part of the County Board, I am renewed with hope and enthusiasm,” said DeKalb County Democratic Party head Anna Wilhelmi, who’s been outspoken against a sale.

More than a dozen showed up Wednesday to voice sentiments similar to Wilhelmi. All expressed opposition to the sale, a alleging that if a sale to a private owner were to go through, quality of care for residents and staff might suffer.

The decisions means a state committee meeting set for Tuesday could potentially decide the future of the facility. The Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board will meet at 9 a.m. at the Bolingbrook Golf Club, 2001 Rodeo Drive in Bolingbrook to review for the second time the certificate needed to further the sale along.

DeKalb County Administrator Brian Gregory talked to the DeKalb County Board on Sept. 27, 2023 about what approving or denying Avi Zuckerman's request would mean for the sale of the DeKalb County Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.

The state committee put the sale on hold in July after an initial review of the sale. In their decision, state Board members cited a lack of clarity on the buyers’ quality of care at other facilities the company’s principles are affiliated with. Board members said their decision to table a vote in July was due in large part because Blonder and Singer have joint ownership in 10 healthcare facilities, seven of which have been given the lowest possible star rating by the federal government, according to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The star ratings are determined based on health inspections, staffing and quality measures such as if residents are up to date on flu shots, if they’re in pain or losing weight.

As of Sept. 27, the 190-bed DeKalb County Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, 2600 N. Annie Glidden Road in DeKalb, has a two-star rating. About a year ago, the facility had five stars. Included in its overall rating, the DeKalb facility has two stars for health inspections, four for staffing and three stars for quality measures.

On Tuesday, the state committee will either approve, deny or defer the certificate of need application for the facility – one of the last requirements needed to be satisfied before the sale can close.

Maggie Niemi – former nursing center administrator who resigned in July 2022 amid a string of resignations that occurred after the vote to sell – said she wasn’t expecting the board’s actions Wednesday.

“I feel that this is a good step, and then we’ll see what next week brings, and then we’ll see there after, because maybe this is just the starting of something bigger where they’re going to be looking more closely at how the nursing home can be sustained further by the community – maybe with a referendum, maybe without a referendum,” Niemi said. “So I think this is the best outcome that I would have expected, and I hope that I’m not falsely optimistic.”

Mike Ostrom of Somonauk, whose mother lives in the nursing center, also has been a staunch opponent to the sale.

“We need to keep that nursing home open,” he said.

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