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How one small-town nursing home lost battle to stay open

Volunteers have mowed the Mount Hope Nursing Center property since it closed.
The Active Age
Volunteers have mowed the Mount Hope Nursing Center property since it closed.

A small Sedgwick County town is endanger of losing its nursing home.

MOUNT HOPE — As the coronavirus pandemic decimated many nursing homes in 2020, Mary Schmidt felt pretty good about the situation at the Mount Hope Nursing Center.

“We didn’t get COVID until November (of that year),” Schmidt, chair of the nonprofit community group that owns the center, remembered last month. “Staff and everybody did a really good job of keeping residents and employees safe.”

The nursing center saw residents die from COVID after that point, although Schmidt said deaths from all causes averaged about the same number as before the pandemic.
But the pandemic was taking a toll on the facility in another way. Because of the federal government’s decision to lock down nursing homes, families were reluctant to place their loved ones in the facilities.

“Not many people will say, ‘Let’s go take our loved one to a nursing center where we can’t see them,” Schmidt said. “When we lost people, we weren’t able to fill our beds. That’s our source of income.”

The Mount Hope home closed in December 2022, one of 24 nursing homes in Kansas that have shut down since the beginning of the pandemic, according to an April report by McNight’s Long-Term Care News. Another 28 homes delicensed part of their operations, generally citing a lack of available employees as the reason.

For Mount Hope residents, nursing home care is available 20 miles away in Wichita, but the closing was still a jolt to this community of about 780 people in northwest Sedgwick County.

“We were trying to right the ship,” Schmidt said. “There were just too many obstacles.”

The Mount Hope center was opened in the 1970s by the Mount Hope Community Development, Inc. The nonprofit organization also operates the 32-unit Larsen Apartments for people 55 and older adjacent to the nursing home, the Mount Hope Community Center (which also serves as the senior center), a park containing an electronic sign for community announcements and, until a couple years ago, a fitness center.

Schmidt, who joined the group’s board in 2016, said the nursing center “was established so that local families would have a place, like many small communities did at the time, especially rural ones.” Licensed for 40 beds, the facility “stayed pretty busy,” Schmidt said, although it reduced its beds to 35 in recent years to save on the $818-per-bed tax it paid the state.

Schmidt is proud of the way the center’s staff handled themselves during the pandemic.

“There wasn’t anything that was good about it in the sense of health care and care for the elderly, because the government gave us rules that we had to abide by. Some were good and some — they found out later — probably weren’t the wisest decision.”

As the pandemic subsided, Schmidt said, the facility tried to build back its resident base through advertising and other means, but it found that many potential residents were choosing newer facilities in Wichita, about 20 miles away.

“Everyone who lives in Mount Hope is not necessarily going to go to the Mount Hope Nursing Center,” she said. “In Wichita, there are all kinds of nursing care facilities going up that are big and fancy.”

Some older Mount Hope residents who received medical care in Wichita were encouraged to find a nursing home there, Schmidt said.

“We weren’t only just going up against coming out of COVID, we were up against the money that comes with doctor-owned facilities.”

The Mount Hope center was also reluctant to raise its prices. “We’re a small community. You want to make it affordable,” Schmidt said.

The center had also been fined by the federal government on a regular basis, racking up over $56,000 in penalties during the pandemic, according to records on medicare.gov. The facility had an overall rating of two stars out of a possible five. Its health inspections were rated below average, staffing levels much below average and quality measures much above average.

“They certainly can find ways to fine you,” Schmidt said. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t have rules and regulations, but sometimes when you’re in these kind of emergency situations, there has to be a little grace there.”

The nursing home lost more than $500,000 in 2021, according to federal tax forms available at propublica.org.

After initially seeing what looked like “a little light at the end of the tunnel,” she said, board members decided on Dec. 8, 2022 to close the facility, settling on a two-month plan to relocate residents. Two weeks later, in the midst of below-zero temperatures, the center’s heating system failed. When repairmen couldn’t fix it, the facility evacuated the remaining 31 residents at once. “It was just one of those very freakish things that happen,” Schmidt said, adding that the HVAC system was “probably five years old.”

The board laid off center employees, dividing up responsibilities for things like paying utility bills, maintaining bank accounts, overseeing the apartments and opening mail. Other community volunteers are mowing the property and recently removed some downed tree branches from the park.

“We’re all people who have our own lives,” said Schmidt, who operates a child care center in her home. “Everything we’re doing is done by volunteers in our spare time.”

Meanwhile, assisted by a realtor and attorney, board members have been trying to figure out what to do with the organization’s assets and how to settle its unpaid bills. Schmidt said community reaction to the nursing home closing “wasn’t very good. It was sad. Some people understood and other people didn’t. Some people knew what was going on and others just (believed) the rumor mill stuff that normally goes on.”

The plan now is for the city of Mount Hope to take over the community center and park. That means there will still be Monday freewill donation lunches, bingo and farmers markets at the center, sewing classes for kids and other events, Schmidt said. A Wichita businessman with experience in senior communities is expected to buy the apartments and nursing home building. “His goal is to bring back some kind of skilled nursing. That’s not going to be something that’s going to happen overnight.”

Schmidt hopes the moves will “kind of make us whole again” but knows the nursing home will be missed.

“It was very difficult for the board to make this decision,” she said. “From a personal standpoint, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”

Contact Joe at joe@theactiveage.com. This article was produced for The Active Age as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of 11 media and community partners.