There’s a familiar face around Sunnyside Health Care Center (SHCC) these days. Larry Penk, retired longtime administrator of Inter-Faith Care Center in Carlton, was hired as interim administrator of SHCC in February.
Community Memorial Hospital Administrator/CEO Rick Breuer said Penk is a highly regarded and well known nursing home administrator and he seemed like the perfect candidate for the job, which will likely be short-term as the residents and staff get accustomed to the new, more streamlined setup at Sunnyside.
Last fall, hospital administrators and board members made the decision to adapt to the changing health care needs of the community and reduce the number of beds by half, consolidating them to the second floor of the existing facility.
“While the senior population of Carlton County continues to grow with the advent of the Baby Boomer population, so too do the number of senior housing options,” Breuer explained. “Home health care, independent living apartments and assisted living facilities have kept more and more seniors with lower health care requirements out of nursing homes for longer periods of time. I don’t see that changing.”
In the case of Sunnyside Health Care Center, Breuer said, that meant resident populations began to decrease, and at the time the announcement was made in September, the 88-bed facility had a resident population of only 60. Other nursing homes in Carlton and Duluth also had open beds.
“We would never have made that decision if we knew it would leave the area short of nursing home beds,” said Breuer.
He added that no residents were transferred or discharged in order to meet the maximum goal of 44 beds. Instead, it was achieved through a process of natural attrition by accepting no new admissions as beds were vacated. Breuer said cutting the number of the nursing care beds in half also resulted in the unfortunate necessity to pare down staffing.
“We’d never had to do that before, and it was incredibly difficult,” admitted Breuer.
He said if the department had merely been shrinking, they could have simply reduced staff through attrition, but since they were essentially cutting it in half, they simply couldn’t get there that way.
Breuer said discussions were held with the affected unions as well as non-certified staff and they went through the process of examining seniority and other determining factors. He said about half of the employees had to be laid off, with some of those affected taking voluntary layoffs to go back to school or for other reasons. Still others cut back their hours in order to retain positions for others. Some, Breuer said, have actually been rehired since then when positions have become available.
“We felt everyone was really trying to do the right thing to try to make it a little less painful than it was,” he commented.
Today, that goal has been met and the nursing home has been consolidated to one floor. That’s where Penk comes in.
“We think for the most part everyone has adapted really well,” said Breuer. “Now we’ve asked Larry to come in and help out as interim administrator to continue helping residents, families and employees adapt to the changes as well as to make some recommendations for moving forward. It’s always good to have a fresh set of outside eyes to look at things we’re used to seeing every day.”
Breuer said having Penk on board has so far been “very helpful,” adding, “Larry has forgotten more about nursing home administration than most of us will ever know! He’s one of the best there is.”
Breuer said having all of the nursing home residents housed on one floor has already resulted in more organized care, with staff not having to work around empty rooms and beds like they did when the patient rooms were more spread out.
Breuer also said that while some feared the consolidation of the nursing home could mean a step toward closing it altogether, the new, more efficient configuration has actually resulted in making the future of Sunnyside “much more secure.”
As for the first-floor space of Sunnyside Health Care Center, the hospital’s therapy departments will soon be moving in there, with occupational and speech therapy set to make the move in late April, followed by physical therapy sometime in May.
The transition comes at an opportune time for another big move the hospital is making — the startup of its first-ever dialysis unit in the former therapy wing, hopefully by sometime late summer.
“While we didn’t originally plan it this way,” said Breuer, “as it turned out, all if it has synchronized very nicely.”