When the Champaign County Board sold the Champaign County Nursing Home in May 2018, the board members expected the new owners to care for seniors for the next ten years.
But just five years later, the owners sold and closed four senior service facilities, including Inman Place in downtown Champaign.
The Champaign County Board should have listened to warnings from the community before selling the former nursing home to William A. Rothner, Champaign County Health Care Consumers Executive Director Claudia Lennhoff said.
That choice “let the fox into the hen house,” Lennhoff said in an interview this year.
“I feel like the county board just made a huge mistake,” Lennhoff said in 2018 after the county voted to sell the nursing home to the Rothners. “And, unfortunately, county residents, probably for years to come, are going to pay the price for that.”
Altitude Health Services and Extended Care LLC submitted the only proposal to purchase the Champaign County Nursing Home in 2018. Both businesses are connected to the Rothner family — including Eric Rothner and his son William “Avi” Rothner.
Avi Rothner is the founder and president of Altitude Health Services. Both businesses share the same address in Evanston, Ill.
In 2019, the county finalized the purchase of the Champaign County Nursing Home at 500 Art Bartell Rd in Urbana, which was renamed the University Rehabilitation Center of C-U. That same year, the Rothners purchased and closed two other nursing homes: Helia Healthcare and Heartland Healthcare.
In total, Champaign County has lost 463 nursing home beds after Rothner closed his facilities, according to 2021 Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) counts of beds in the facilities.
The loss of three nursing homes and one independent living center in just four years has been devastating to the Champaign County community, Lennhoff said.
Over 1,000 nursing homes have closed in the U.S. between 2015 and 2022, according to the American Health Care Association. Many of the closures can be attributed to a growing national trend of “flipping” nursing homes — driven by the ownership shift from small, non-profits to for-profit corporations.
Beds are disappearing while the need for senior care is growing, national data shows. This problem will only be exasperated by the rapid projected growth of U.S. residents ages 65 and older — from 56 million in 2020 to 81 million by 2040, a 44% increase.
Avi Rothner said he is the largest donor to healthcare in the county and has lost millions of his own money to this facility, according to county board documents from April 2023.
“He informed the Board that he does not need their permission to close, the mortgage has not been paid in eight months and he can no longer fund this personally,” the report’s transcript said.
Now, the University Rehabilitation Center of C-U is for sale. Although Rothner has proposed the idea of selling the building to an interested buyer to operate it as a substance abuse treatment center, county officials aren’t accepting that.
“The County would like to see it sold to an entity that would continue to operate it as a skilled care facility,” Champaign County Executive Steven Summers wrote in an email interview.
The Rothners purchase nursing homes and senior service centers intending to sell the buildings off to make money, Lennhoff said.
“It is not about providing assisted living,” Lennhoff said. “It is about real estate transactions.”
Avi Rothner responded with one sentence for a request for comment but did not respond to repeated requests for answers to additional questions by phone and email.
“I don’t have any business in that area anymore,” Rothner wrote over email.
The Rothners’ promises and history
After the Rothners purchased the Champaign County Nursing Home, which had 243 beds in 2019, Lennhoff said it opened the door for the Rothners to purchase two more nursing homes in Champaign County — Helia Healthcare, which had 118 beds, and Heartland Healthcare, which had 102 beds.
“Through value engineering, University Rehabilitation Center of C-U, LLC will redesign resident care and eliminate functional redundancies to ensure that the residents of Champaign County continue to have access to high-quality skilled nursing home services in the future,” the Champaign County Board and the Rothners stated in their application to purchase the Champaign County Nursing Home.
Now, all three of the nursing homes are closed.
The Rothners sold Helia Healthcare to Fairlawn Real Estate Property Management in 2021, which owns and operates over 200 rental housing properties in Champaign-Urbana.
Heartland Healthcare is now an apartment building on the University of Illinois campus owned by Green Street Realty.
During a county board meeting on March 14, Avi Rothner argued to modify a covenant that barred him from selling the Champaign County Nursing Home.
“I will not sit here and continue to fund what is unfortunately a situation that I believe is now irreversible,” he said at the meeting, as reported by WCIA. “And to be at a point where if I don’t, I’m compromising patient safety.”
At the meeting, the nursing home’s former security director Jerow Scheel said he “fears for the future of the residents, employees and the building.”
The Rothners also owned the Inman, an independent living facility of about 30 apartments for seniors over the age of 55 in Downtown Champaign. The Rothners sold the Inman, a historical building built in 1915, to Royse and Brinkmeyer, a property management company, in 2022.
After the sale of the Inman, the new owners turned the building into an all-ages property and removed the existing senior services — including 24/7 staff and medication reminders. As a result, over half of residents left, according to Royse and Brinkmeyer CEO Collin Carlier.
Lawsuits, debt and state code violations
In May 2023, Manufacturers and Traders Trust Co. filed a lawsuit in Champaign County against Rothner’s company seeking the payment of outstanding debts of $12 million in two loans taken out by the buyers.
As of Dec. 2023, the case is still ongoing.
In 2014, Omnicare Inc. sued Altitude Health Services for more debts involving more than $28 million worth of pharmaceuticals and other medical supplies.
Omnicare also filed several lawsuits involving 56 nursing homes in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio since 2005.
While the Rothners owned and operated the Champaign County Nursing Home, state inspections found one Type A violation — the most serious licensure violation imposed, which “pertains to a condition in which there is a substantial probability that death or serious mental or physical harm will result.
The facility failed to ensure residents received services to safely discharge from the facility to the home — which led to a case where a resident was diagnosed with severe hypothermia, dehydration and sepsis according to a quarterly inspection from the Illinois Department of Public Health in 2020.
Staff at the facility also failed to complete thorough post-fall investigations and plans for three residents — leading to continued falls and fractures of bones.
University Rehab, the new name for the Champaign County Nursing Home, was enrolled in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Special Focus Facility Program — reserved for nursing homes with “a history of serious quality issues.”
Another nursing home Rothner owned — Champaign Rehabilitation Center, formerly Helia Healthcare — also violated state codes, according to IDPH quarterly inspection documents.
In one violation, the facility failed to use a gait belt to lift a resident. As a result, the resident fractured their left hip and affected their “ability to walk,” the report said.
Impact on senior services
The Advocates for Nursing Home Care, an advocacy group working with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, is conducting a study on the number of nursing home beds needed in the county. The survey will be distributed in Jan. 2024 and be followed by a market study.
“After the closure and downsizing of area long-term care facilities, Champaign County is expected to have 411 of the 721 beds needed for the population,” according to a health district announcement from Aug. 2023.
Champaign County had a deficit of 11 nursing home beds before the closure of the Champaign County Nursing Home, according to the 2021 Long-Term Care Inventory from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Now, the deficit has increased by an estimated 243 beds.
Although the Rothners claimed that there was an excess of nursing home beds available in the area, the Champaign County Health Care Consumers said those statistics are misleading.
Because the nursing home ratings in Champaign County are so low, many people choose to go to homes in neighboring counties, so occupancy is low in Champaign because of the low quality of services, the group argued.
Chicago attorney Steven Levin, who sues nursing homes for neglect and abuse, said it’s become common practice in the nursing home industry to look at facilities as real estate. So, when the nursing homes are struggling to produce profits, they’re immediately sold.
“It’s not really a healthcare business,” Levin said. “To them, it’s a real estate business.”