Sunnyside nursing home to close

Economic realities catch up with 58-year-old care center


October 6, 2023

Jana Peterson

Sunnyside Health Care Center is closing, Community Memorial Hospital and Sunnyside officials announced to staff and residents Tuesday. The long-term care facility has been attached to the hospital and serving local residents since it opened in 1965. Industry-wide difficulties with finding staff and inadequate reimbursement for care (mostly by Medicaid) led to the closure, officials said.

After nearly six decades of caring for the community's elderly and infirm, Sunnyside Health Care Center in Cloquet is closing.

Sunnyside and Community Memorial Hospital officials said the process will begin immediately and will be complete by the end of the year. Thirty-four residents will have to find new places to live, and close to 30 staff will lose their jobs.

It was a difficult decision, said Community Memorial Hospital CEO Rick Breuer. But difficulty staffing the facility - which always boasted "above average staffing" - and inadequate reimbursement rates from Medicaid were too much to overcome. Eighty percent of the residents are on Medicaid. Add in a pandemic and all its effects, and the writing was on the wall.

"[Covid] decimated staffing levels," said Jeff Brown, CMH senior vice president of long-term care. "We've had to contract about half our staff, and that's not sustainable."

It makes sense, but it still hurts, the administrators said. Staff and residents learned about the closure Tuesday. They're in shock, Breuer said, sad and angry about the closure, which is tentatively set for Dec. 1.

"We met with residents yesterday and this is their home, they want to stay here," Brown said. "I don't know how many of them told me, 'I'm not moving.' They think of us as a home."\

It's a home that may look less shiny than some, but the staff and services more than made up for it.

Myrna Alley testified to the care at Sunnyside in a recent email to the Pine Knot, one she felt compelled to write after her parents, Lyle and Alda Twite, spent their last years there.

"Living so far from my parents in these last years has been very difficult, but I've never doubted that they've been surrounded by love," wrote Alley, who grew up here and now lives in Atlanta. "I have so many friends struggling to find quality care for their aging parents. I feel tremendously blessed that my parents received the absolute best care .... My parents loved the staff at Sunnyside; my entire family loves them."

Staff also found a supportive place at the facility. Many worked decades at Sunnyside and planned to retire from there.

It will be difficult to see the end of Sunnyside, said Toni Hubbell, who organized lots of the events and outings there as director of engagement. The closure means no more annual trips to the Warming House for ice cream, no more community band performances or repeat horse visitors.

"It's very hard, as this is a job that I have always loved," Hubbell said. "They are all my family - residents, families and coworkers."

Compounding problems

Built as two stories connected to the back of the hospital in the early 1960s, Sunnyside originally offered 88 beds (mostly two to a room), with 44 on each floor. In 2015, the nursing home contracted to just the upper floor and 44 beds.

They've had empty beds for more than a year because of staffing. Fewer beds means less money coming in.

"We have many, many people on our waiting list, wanting to come here, but because we don't have the available staff, we don't admit [new residents]," Brown said.

"I'd wager almost every nursing home in the state of Minnesota is dealing with that," Breuer said. "I know the ones in our region have far fewer residents than they're licensed for because they just can't staff it."

A 5-star rating on didn't help. Brown said roughly 40 percent of facilities that close have a 5-star rating and the high staffing levels that Sunnyside employed.

"Ironically, the government wants [staffing levels] even higher and there just isn't the available workforce and no funding to follow that increase," Brown said.

Breuer said the hospital has always subsidized the nursing home, which has lost "millions of dollars forever," he said.

"We did for years and felt good about that, because we knew the importance of providing that care, and because Sunnyside delivered such exceptional care. But we simply can't and remain viable as an organization overall," Breuer said, adding that the cost overrun nearly doubled last year.

And, unlike government aid during the pandemic, there's no white horse on the way.

Breuer called funding set aside after the last state legislative session a bandage at best, a one-time fix with no sustainability.

"Speaking for myself on this, knowing the resources (a $9 billion surplus) that were available in the state, if they were ever going to fundamentally restructure and more appropriately support elder care, this would have been the session to do it," the hospital CEO said. "They'll never have more ability to do it and they chose not to. ... They made a lot of great investments across the state. But this was an area they did not choose to invest in, so that tells us a story about where they're putting their priorities."

Officials began seriously discussing the closure of Sunnyside last summer, following the legislative session and as part of a strategic planning session.

"Difficult decisions had to be made, and they were," Brown said. "But it is a huge loss for the community."

Next steps

Sunnyside administrators have a plan to help families and residents. Over the next two weeks they'll meet with residents and families to discuss wants, needs and options. They will set up tours of appropriate facilities, including providing transportation and a staff member to go with them in the weeks that follow.

Sunnyside officials are working with all the local facilities, which are willing to help.

Toni Hubbell

Sunnyside residents enjoy a tea party and (below) some time outside on the Sunnyside patio, where residents plant their own flowers.

"We will make sure we do it right and do it well," Brown said. "We'll know when we go inside what we're looking for. We want to make sure our residents find a good home."

Brown said the majority of staff want to stay until Sunnyside closes. They want to make sure the residents have a good transition.

Having a staff member on the tour is good for the resident and the staff member, Breuer said.

"Who knows, maybe the staff member will like it too," he said, adding the thought of having some staff and residents stay together is a happier one.

The idea that the closure of Sunnyside could make another facility more sustainable is another possible silver lining to a bad situation, Breuer said.

"We are hopeful that other facilities can be spared the same fate, by having our residents and staff," Brown said. "We know the services are needed in the community."


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