After three years, Dorothy Lewis has come to think of the Wethersfield Health Care Center as home. Now, she testified Thursday, she fears losing that home and the workers she considers family as the nursing home’s owners try to shut it down.
“I’m standing up to show you I’ve been restored to complete normal health,” she said, lauding the physical therapy she has received as a resident. She said she came in losing weight with mobility problems. “I’ve been here for three years and my family and friends felt this place was the best possible place I could be, and now I always clean my plate.”
Elected state officials, Wethersfield town officials, residents’ famililies, nursing home staff and union members also attended the public hearing to oppose the application for a certificate of need required by Wethersfield Health’s operators to close the facility.
Kevin Breslin, the executive vice president of 341 Jordan Lane Operating Company II, LLC, read the list of reasons why he and HealthBridge Management believe the nursing home isn’t financially viable. He cited annual financial losses, too few residents, Medicaid payments that fail to cover costs, reduced Medicare payments and a state and federal initiative to move nursing home residents into the community as reasons for closure.
“Our decision to seek closure was not made lightly,” Breslin said. “There’s no realistic way to operate here and be financially viable.”
The nursing home has struggled financially since 2002. The application to close the facility says it lost $993,234 in 2008, $1.59 million in 2009, $1.55 million last year, and an estimated $2 million this year.
Wethersfield Health Center houses 183 residents, but contains 210 beds and possesses the capacity for 330. Breslin said paying for the cost of heating, lighting and property taxes for the extra space, in addition to the need for renovations, replacing the roof and mechanical system repair, carries a price tag of about $4 million and proves too costly.
Opponents criticized Breslin and HealthBridge Management, saying they found their assessment of the nursing home impersonal.
“What strikes me today is that the owner’s focus is totally on numbers,” said Gerri Roberts, a Democratic member of the Wethersfield Town Council. “Whether it’s profits, whether it’s beds, it’s all numbers-focused. I don’t hear their concern about people.”
Five state legislators agreed and also said they wanted to involve the state in procuring a new owner for the nursing home. Sen. John Fonfara, whose district includes part of Wethersfield, said HealthBridge’s proposal to close the nursing home came as a surprise and is avoidable.
“I have to say that I don’t think my colleagues were notified or had an opportunity to talk to the management here,” he said. “No owner should be required to stay in business if they choose not to. We will work with this facility, we will work with the state and the [Department of Social Services] commissioner to identify other owners, to increase the census of this facility and to keep this facility open.”
“I personally have a hard time looking at this place as a business,” said State Rep. Russell Morin, D-Wethersfield. “I can’t promise you that I’m going to be successful in what I want to see as the end result, but I can promise you that this will be my top priority.”
If the state Department of Social Services grants the closure request, Wethersfield Health Care Center would be the fifth facility to close this year and the 30th in the past decade. Breslin said Wethersfield’s closure wouldn’t harm the immediate region, leaving 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.”
Of the 183 residents, 72 come from Wethersfield and 55 come from Hartford. Deborah Chernoff, spokeswoman for the New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199, SEIU, which represents about 150 workers at the Wethersfield facility, said the number of available of beds in the area that HealthBridge Management presented in its application needs reassessment.
“The survey of supposedly available beds is highly misleading,” Chernoff said, noting that the union conducted its own survey of available beds in the region. “Many of the empty beds listed on the application are in fact not available for long-term care. They’re either designated for short-term rehab or they’re on a wing of a floor that’s being renovated and not available for any occupation.”
“Let’s not forget that we just closed 250 beds in Rocky Hill and West Hartford,” she added. Homes in New Haven and West Haven were also closed this year.
“Some of those residents may have wound up here and they may get bounced around again.”
The union also filed a charge last week with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that HealthBridge tried 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.”
Chernoff said the average tenure for the nursing home’s workers is 14 years, but some have worked there for 35. Wethersfield Health Center employs about 250 full-time and part-time workers.
Theresa Clements, a certified nurse’s aide at the facility, said the employees care deeply about their patients.
“A lot of us want to come in here when we’re hurting, sick and coughing because we worry more about them being all right then we do ourselves,” she said. “So I’m asking you to please do what you know is right for these people.”
The public hearing ran for more than three hours and Richard Wysocki, the DSS-appointed hearing officer said the hearing wouldn’t cover all of the submitted public testimony. Wysocki said he will accept written comments on the Wethersfield Health Center application until November 14. Written comments can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.