Nursing home bill would help vulnerable seniors

NewsMarch 8, 2017

This op-ed originally appeared in the Eureka Times-Standard.

After 52 years of marriage, Ellie and John Catudal had no reason to think they could ever be separated. Then Shlomo Rechnitz, the owner of Eureka Rehabilitation and Wellness Center, where the Catudals shared a room, announced he was shuttering the facility and two others nearby.

Suddenly, the Catudals and 188 other frail seniors in Humboldt County faced the prospect of being moved to nursing homes scattered from Oregon to the Central Valley — far from their loved ones and, for the Catudals, potentially far apart from each other.

After street protests, newspaper articles, and demands from elected officials and our union, Rechnitz and his company, Brius Healthcare Services, which operates more than 80 nursing homes throughout California, backtracked on the plan to close the three facilities in Humboldt County, where Rechnitz controls nearly every skilled nursing bed. He closed just one facility, after failing to wrangle an additional increase in his Medi-Cal reimbursement rate.

But the episode shined a light on the threat posed by powerful operators in the rapidly consolidating nursing home industry, and the trauma nursing home residents face when they are forced to leave a facility where they have grown comfortable.

Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Eureka, called the episode “a rollercoaster of anxiety” for the nursing home residents and their families. Earlier this month, he introduced important legislation that would help lessen anxiety for thousands of families across the state by strengthening patient safeguards and state regulators.

Rather than merely being able to accept or reject an operator’s closure of a nursing home, the California Department of Public Health, under Wood’s bill, would have the authority to require operators to adopt specific measures to “help prevent possible resident transfer trauma.”

If an operator is proposing to close two or more nearby facilities simultaneously, the department would be authorized to deny approval and “require the facilities to re-submit their closure plans with different timelines.”

The bill also increases from 30 days to 90 days the notice that operators must give to residents prior to closing a facility and requires that patients being forced to relocate are first assessed by a doctor and a mental health clinician.

Joseph Rodriguez, the California Department of Aging’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman, said the legislation would protect patients from “unnecessary transfer trauma” and “allow us more time to work with residents and their families in finding appropriate new homes for them.”

It’s also important to remember just who was behind the attempt to shutter nearly 60 percent of Humboldt County’s 446 nursing home beds. Rechnitz’s firm, Brius Healthcare Services, controls one out every 14 nursing home beds in California. And, he would control even more had state regulators, citing the firm’s systemic patient care violations, not denied his application to purchase five additional homes last year.

Having participated in last year’s fight to save Humboldt County’s nursing homes and battled Rechnitz over working conditions and resident care at several other facilities, our union’s members want to see state leaders stand up for our most vulnerable seniors.

While we strongly support Assemblymember Wood’s legislation, we’d also like to see the state lower the threshold for placing troubled nursing homes into receivership, prohibit nursing home operators from controlling a majority of beds in a county, and increase penalties for non-compliance. Additionally, we think the state can do a better job of enforcing the rules that are already in place.

Our parents and grandparents deserve that much.

Sal Rosselli is president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents 13,000 caregivers throughout the state, including 200 Brius nursing home workers in Marin County.