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Options narrow on Nopeming

St. Louis County should look at building a new, 80-bed Nopeming nursing home and at consolidating Nopeming patients and staffers to its other nursing home, Chris Jensen.

St. Louis County should look at building a new, 80-bed Nopeming nursing home and at consolidating Nopeming patients and staffers to its other nursing home, Chris Jensen.
Those were the two recommendations made by County Administrator David Twa to the County Board Tuesday, as he told a packed audience of mostly nursing home patient family members and supporters how the county should proceed.
Commissioners took no action, saying that they had received a lot of information and wanted to see survey results on gaps in care first. The county is expected to respond by this fall.
Commissioner Dennis Fink of Duluth made a motion afterward to give Twa direction, but Board Chair Bill Kron of Duluth said he would not allow that, as many people had been told there would be no more debate.
Twa told commissioners Tuesday that both recommendations were being made so the county can begin filing for state approval and grants, do it carefully to meet all state guidelines and financial requirements, and avoid penalties.
The administrator gave a number of facts and figures for the board and public to consider:
* A 1998 study on the two county-owned homes showed Chris Jensen (opened in 1966) needed $451,300 in upgrades and repairs, while Nopeming (opened in the 1930s as a tuberculosis sanatorium) needed $6.6 million in repairs, remodeling and upgrades.
* The two homes were expected to generate operating deficits this year also, with Chris Jensen losing $21,148 through June 30, and projected to lose $261,039 for the year by Dec. 31; Nopeming had lost $149,628 by June 30, and was expected to lose $263,098 for the year.
* Growth in assisted living units in the Duluth area has affected nursing home occupancy rates, which had a 123-bed vacancy in private and public nursing homes as of July 18. There were 1,480 nursing home beds in Duluth in 1995, but there are 1,321 now; assisted living units were at 430 in 1995 and now are at 958, according to Twa's figures.
* The State Legislature acted this session to increase funding for homes and to lower nursing home occupancy, Twa said. "The criteria which they've established fits us very well.''
* Another cost to the county was the training needed for the 42.1 percent turnover in nursing home employees in 2000, compared to 5.4 percent in total county employee turnover.
* Both nursing homes average below the 93 percent occupancy threshold rate set for higher earnings; Chris Jensen's 2001 occupancy is projected at 89 percent, and Nopeming's at 90 percent. Each percent below 93 percent is $100,000 in lost earnings, Twa said.
A new 120-bed facility at Nopeming would cost about $17 million, Twa estimated. He said afterward that the new, 80-bed nursing home at Nopeming he was proposing would probably cost at least $8 million to $9 million.
Nopeming supporters were quick to make their points for keeping the place open, citing the staffers' quality service to patients and the homey atmosphere there, including the dementia unit that was one of the few places that could hold some patients securely.
Joan Peterson, whose mother and other members have been at Nopeming, said she "can't understand how a price tag can be put on such a priceless asset.''
Nopeming Family Care Council president Ann Stangland read letters from Virginia-area residents Joyce Chopp and Darlene Carlson, both for Nopeming's care.
"It was the only nursing home that would accept my husband,'' Chopp related in her letter, adding, "I am unable to see how money could ever come before people.''
Carlson, a registered nurse, said in her letter that when people were productive in their lives and careers, but were now in Nopeming, "they still need love and caring.''
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 96 representative Marsh Stenerson, who has been an agent for nursing home employees, reminded the County Board that workers made major concessions during talks in 1996 to keep the homes open, taking $500,000 in pay, vacation, holiday and other benefit cuts to help.
Commissioner Mike Forsman of Ely had the last word on the issue, for the moment, by offering the Laskin Energy Park in Hoyt Lakes as the ideal, woodsy setting for a new 80-bed nursing home, with brand-new infrastructure to the energy park. The city could use new jobs to help after the LTV taconite plant closing of Jan. 5, and the Iron Range would have a county nursing home up north, he said.
Charles Ramsay is a reporter for the Mesabi Daily News of Virginia, a Murphy McGinnis newspaper.

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