Cook County residents shouldn’t pay for nursing home tax breaks

Chicago
By Chicago 5 Min Read

The population of senior citizens in the U.S. grew five times faster than the total population over the last century, according to the latest Census: One in 20 people were over 65 in 1920, a figure that rose to one in six in 2020.

That demographic reality of an aging, rapidly growing population is why well-run nursing homes, which also serve as homes for disabled men and women, are indispensable.

The Health Care Council of Illinois, which represents the nursing home industry, insists a property tax break — already rightly vetoed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker — could save struggling Cook County nursing homes and lead to better services. But it makes no sense for the council to insinuate the burden to avert any pending closures and raise subpar care rests on the shoulders of Cook County taxpayers.

It took Pritzker’s veto to stop a proposal, backed by Senate President Don Harmon, to provide tens of millions in nursing home tax breaks — after Harmon raked in $2 million in campaign cash from a political action committee for the Health Care Council, as the Sun-Times’ Robert Herguth reported.

It’s easy to see what’s wrong with that picture. A spokesman for the council claims the money given to Harmon supposedly had nothing to do with Harmon’s support for changing these facilities’ status from commercial to residential property in order to cut their tax bill.

Editorial

Editorial

Harmon declined to comment to Herguth.

Now the council wants the Legislature to override Pritzker’s veto. That would put even more burden on taxpayers, just as higher property tax bills are already coming for most Cook County homeowners.

Pritzker also questioned, and we do too, whether legislators who voted for a bill that included the tax reclassification amendment actually knew it was included. The amendment was slipped into a larger bill dealing with other tax issues by state Sen. Celina Villanueva, D-Chicago — on the same day the matter was passed in May.

Slipping in major changes at the last minute, perhaps hoping no one will notice, is not how legislation should be passed.

Lawmakers now have a chance to show exactly where they stand. They should stick up for taxpayers and let Pritzker’s veto stand. And if some of them have concerns about the state of the nursing home industry, they should discuss the matter publicly and present their case in the open.

Nursing homes are struggling

Undoubtedly, our nation’s nursing homes are struggling. Understaffing and staff turnover are routine. One example: Last fall, residents in six Alden nursing homes in Chicago and the suburbs sued the owner, accusing the company of endangering residents by understaffing.

Between 2013 and 2017, a whopping 82% of all inspected nursing homes had an infection prevention and control deficiency, including a lack of regular hand-washing, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The situation at private equity-owned nursing homes is even more grim. “Too often, the private equity model has put profits before people,” a White House fact sheet from last year states, citing research that found nursing home residents at these institutions have “significantly worse outcomes” than their counterparts. Those outcomes include greater mortality, lower staffing — and higher costs.

If costs are already higher, that makes us even more skeptical that millions in tax breaks for private nursing homes would indeed provide the need fixes and raise the standard of care.

But whatever it takes to provide a better quality of living for vulnerable nursing home residents, Cook County taxpayers ought not bear the burden.

Providing a decent standard of care is the cost of doing business.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

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