Nursing homes languish in hands of private firms

Study says resales, cost cuts leave residents worse off

September 23, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

Habana Health Care Center, a 150-bed nursing home in Tampa, Fla., was struggling when a group of large private investment firms purchased it and 48 other nursing homes in 2002.

The facility's managers quickly cut costs. Within months, the number of clinical registered nurses at the home was half what it had been a year earlier, records collected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services indicate. Budgets for nursing supplies, resident activities and other services also fell, according to Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration.

The investors and operators were soon earning millions of dollars a year from their 49 homes.

Residents fared less well. Over three years, 15 at Habana died from what their families contend was negligent care in lawsuits filed in state court. Regulators repeatedly warned the home that staff levels were below mandatory minimums. When regulators visited, they found malfunctioning fire doors, unhygienic kitchens and a resident using a leg brace that was broken.

"They've created a hellhole," said Vivian Hewitt, who sued Habana in 2004 when her mother died after a large bedsore became infected.

Habana is one of thousands of nursing homes across the nation that large Wall Street investment companies have bought or agreed to acquire in recent years.

Those investors include prominent private equity firms like Warburg Pincus and the Carlyle Group, better known for buying companies like Dunkin' Donuts.

As such investors have acquired nursing homes, they have often reduced costs, increased profits and resold facilities for significant gains.

But by many regulatory benchmarks, residents at those nursing homes are worse off, on average, than they were under previous owners, according to an analysis by The New York Times of data collected by government agencies from 2000 to 2006.

Regulators say residents at these homes have suffered. At facilities owned by private investment firms, residents on average have fared more poorly than occupants of other homes in problems like depression, loss of mobility and loss of ability to dress themselves, according to data collected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The typical nursing home acquired by a large investment company before 2006 scored worse than national rates in 12 of 14 indicators that regulators use to track ailments of long-term residents. Before they were acquired by private investors, many of them scored at or above national averages in similar measurements.

In the past, residents' families often responded to such declines in care by suing, and regulators levied heavy fines against nursing home chains where understaffing led to lapses in care.

But private investment companies have made it very difficult for plaintiffs to succeed in court and for regulators to levy fines by creating complex corporate structures that obscure who controls their homes.

By contrast, publicly owned nursing home chains are essentially required to disclose who controls their facilities in securities filings and other regulatory documents.

Investors in these homes say such structures are common in other businesses and have helped them revive an industry that was on the brink of widespread bankruptcy.

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