The operator of a Wethersfield nursing home is seeking state approval to close the 210-bed facility, one of the town’s largest employers and home to close to 180 residents.

In its request to close Wethersfield Health Care Center, HealthBridge Management cited several factors including having too few residents to maintain operations, annual financial losses, Medicaid payments that do not cover costs, reduced Medicare payments, and a federal and state initiative to move nursing home residents into the community.

A public hearing on the proposal Thursday is expected to draw testimony from residents, workers and town and state officials. The union that represents more than half of the facility’s 260 employees plans to request that the facility be sold, and has raised questions about HealthBridge’s reasons for seeking the closure.

“The timing is suspicious,” said Deborah Chernoff, spokeswoman for the New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199, SEIU, which represents about 150 workers at the Wethersfield facility, as well as workers at five other nursing homes operated by HealthBridge. The company and the union have been in contract talks, and Chernoff said the company has sought significant concessions from workers.

“If they’re successful in closing the place, it creates additional pressures and it scares people” at other facilities into accepting an unfavorable contract, she said.

The union filed a charge last week with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that HealthBridge had attempted to coerce employees into signing petitions to decertify the union. It also alleged that the company had “strongly implied that if Employees gave up their union there was a possibility that a closure could be averted.”

Maureen Weaver, an attorney for the nursing home, said the proposal to close the facility stems from the factors outlined in the application.

“The reason for closure really has nothing to do with the union,” she said.

If the state Department of Social Services grants the closure request, Wethersfield Health Care Center would be the fifth nursing home in the state to shut its doors this year, and the 30th in the past decade. The four other homes that closed this year–in Rocky Hill, West Hartford, New Haven and West Haven–had been in receivership before a Superior Court judge ordered them closed in April.

Nancy Shaffer, the state long-term care ombudsman, said the response from residents–feeling unsettled, worried and uncertain–is similar to those in other potential closures. While some residents have begun thinking about where they would move next if they have to leave, others have said they don’t want to move because the facility is their home.

The announcement that the home could close came as a surprise to residents, Shaffer said.

“Sometimes we may see it coming and there may be rumors or some inkling that this is going to happen. Not in this case,” she said. “So I think it took them very much by surprise.”

Members of Shaffer’s office have been in the facility every day since the closure proposal was announced, assuring residents that they will have a chance to be heard before a decision is made and that they will have options and support if the home closes. If DSS allows the facility to close, they will help residents select another nursing home or move to the community if they wish.

The application for permission to close the facility–known as a certificate of need–noted that although the facility only operates 210 beds, it has capacity for 330 and must still pay the costs of heating, lighting and property taxes for the empty space. The application also cited a need for significant renovations and replacing the roof and many mechanical systems, with a total estimated cost of $4 million.

The nursing home has struggled financially in recent years, losing $993,234 in 2008, $1.59 million in 2009, $1.55 million last year, and an estimated $2 million this year, according to the application.

An increasing share of the facility’s residents are covered by Medicaid, which the application says pays significantly below the cost of care. This year, 79 percent of residents are covered by Medicaid, while 11 percent have Medicare, and 6 percent have private insurance.

It also noted that closing Wethersfield Health Care Center would lead to a regional bed capacity of 63 beds per 1,000 people aged 65 and older, a level the application said would “significantly exceed the national average of 45 beds per 1,000 individuals age 65 and older.” The immediate area has 323 vacant beds, and the application noted that the state expects to move 2,251 people from nursing homes into the community during this and next fiscal year as part of the Money Follows the Person program, which would further reduce the need for nursing home capacity.

The application also said a sale would be “extremely unlikely,” although it said the facility is being marketed and the company would work with potential buyers. Weaver said two potential buyers had expressed interest at one point, but there are currently no pending buyers.

Sen. John Fonfara, whose district includes Wethersfield, plans to urge DSS to reject the proposal and order a sale if necessary. Many residents have relatives who have limited ability to travel but can get to the Wethersfield Health Care Center, which is on a bus line, he said.

Of the 182 residents in the facility as of Oct. 28, 72 were from Wethersfield and 55 were from Hartford.

“I think it’s important that we look at the population that is served there,” said Fonfara, a Democrat. “And can people who are there now not only get the same kind of care, and their relatives and friends get to see them, which is a big part of health care.”

Wethersfield Town Manager Jeff Bridges said the impact on the nursing home’s residents is the top consideration for him. The potential closure could also have a significant effect on the town, and he said he wants to hear the company’s plans for the building.

“It’s a major taxpayer for our community, and one of the last things we want to do is have another vacant or abandoned building in town,” he said, particularly one that doesn’t lend itself to reuse.

While any nursing home closure is devastating for residents, Chernoff said closing Wethersfield Health Care Center would be particularly difficult. “Besides the fact that it’s the only nursing home in Wethersfield, it’s been a real community center there for decades,” she said.

Chernoff said the average tenure of workers at the facility is 14 years, and some have been there for 35.

“We think this is a viable place,” she said. “The owners may not last, but the workers do. They’ve made significant improvements in quality in the place and if they don’t want to run it, find. Let somebody else who actually cares about the workers and residents.”

The public hearing will be held at Wethersfield Health Care Center, 341 Jordan Lane in Wethersfield, at 10 a.m., Thursday, Nov. 10.

Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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