For three and a half years at the Danbury Health Care Center, Margaret Bunblasky received the best of care — until the recent nursing home strike, her daughter says.

Now Bunblasky’s daughter, Linda Bunblasky-Cioffoletti, cannot help thinking that the contentious stand-off between HealthBridge Management and its nurses’ union hastened her mother’s death.

As a result of the strike, 87-year-old Bunblasky’s care-givers were replaced by a temporary staff — one Cioffoletti believes was inadequately trained to meet her mother’s needs.

“My sister went to visit my mother and when she walked into her room, my mother had peaches coming out of her mouth, a spoon left on her bed, and peaches on the floor,” Bunblasky-Cioffoletti said.

A replacement nursing assistant had apparently fed Bunblasky solid food instead of the puree she was supposed to have to prevent aspiration and pneumonia.

A few days later, the woman’s daughters found her with a high fever and summoned an ambulance. She died at Danbury Hospital on July 19.

“My mother had been at the center since three and a half years. The Danbury Health Care Center Striking workers treated my mother as I wish for her to be treated.  In fact, the care went above and beyond,” said her daughter.

“Prior to her illness, my mother always dressed to the nine’s,” she added. “She was a model in her younger days for Edwin Georgi, who illustrated her in the Ladies Home Journal, as well as the Saturday Evening Post.”

Dot, her assigned caregiver at DHCC, always took meticulous care of Bunblasky and truly considered the nursing home staff her family, said Bunblasky-Cioffoletti.

“Even in her debilitating condition, my mom never had a bed sore. Dot, as well as the regular caregivers, always had her dressed every day with the loose clothing we supplied.”

“When the union went on strike, July 3, my mother was no longer dressed by the replacement caregivers.  She was left in a johnny coat all day. And it was indicated to me that my mother needed ‘adaptive’ clothing for her needs.”

Within a week, added Cioffoletti, her mother sustained two skin tears because the replacement staff did not dress her properly.

Danbury Health Care Center is one of five nursing homes owned by a for-profit New Jersey-based nursing home chain, HealthBridge Management/Care One.

On July 3, more than 160 employees went on strike to protest the imposition of a new compensation package that cuts caregivers’ wages and other job benefits. Nurses, aides and support staff from four other HealthBridge nursing homes in Milford, Newington, Stamford and Westport are also on strike.

As union workers picketing in shifts from early morning to late at night, HealthBridge has hired replacement workers to ensure the centers continue providing what the company terms the highest quality care.

But this is far from an accurate portrayal, residents’ family members say.

The Huorns

Landen Miam Huorn and his daughter, Susan

Susan Huorn’s father is a resident at the West River Health Care Center in Milford, where HealthBridge locked out workers for four months – an act which the National Labor Relations Board later ruled to be an illegal act.

“Having hired replacement aides is sacrificing the quality of care for my father,” Huorn said. “They may be ‘qualified’ but they don’t know the residents. They don’t know my father.”

Hourn’s 73-year-old father is a stroke patient and is mostly paralyzed. “He cannot talk so he is unable to tell me how he is suffering, but when he stares hard… I can tell he is unhappy,” she said.

Huorn said she visits him at least four times a week and each time finds a different caregiver assigned to assist him.  “It hurts me to see that he is not clean and is not being taken care of by that one caregiver who understood his needs.”

Normally, every certified nursing assistant, or CNA, is assigned 10 to 12 permanent patients with whom they work closely. “Our patients are like our family,” said Regina Dillon, 67, a nurse at the Danbury Health Center. “They have learned to associate with us and confide in us and this sudden shift in caregivers’ attitude towards them is upsetting them.”

But HealthBridge insists that patients’ healthcare has not been affected and they continue to receive quality care. “The families and residents at our Connecticut centers have been overwhelmingly complimentary about the care provided since the strike began,” said Lisa Crutchfield, spokesperson for HealthBridge management.

In an email, Crutchfield cited praise from one patient’s family member identified as “E. Best.”

Best “said she and her husband have found that since the strike, their daughter’s level of treatment has vastly improved… the room is cleaner, the new aides are giving better care and better companionship. We love them,” Crutchfield wrote.

She added that patients say they are at ease and feel just as pampered as ever due to the dedication and assistance by the new staff.

Crutchfield said that a resident at the Westport health care center — identified as “P. Gooden” —  “said the atmosphere at the center makes him feel part of one big family. ” She quoted P. Gooden as saying “‘If I ever have to go into a rehab center again, I would choose Westport.’”

Union workers, however, tell a different story.

Deborah Chernoff, spokesperson for New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199 said residents and family members complain of having to deal with the replacement workers whom they consider “strangers.”

Chernoff said that it was “absurd” to think the new staff could provide the same quality of care.

“Our workers are professionals who have worked with patients and their families to build trust. There is no way the level of care by the new CNAs can match our workers’ care.”

Workers and family members are concerned about the well-being of residents, and say HealthBridge should quit focusing on its long term profits from the concession.

“It’s a shame that corporate greed is more important than quality care,” said Huorn. “They should stop wasting time and money breaking the law, and should spend these resources bringing stability to the caregivers and my father.”

“We heard complaints that residents’ hygiene is suffering the most,” said Eva Fal, 47, a dietary agent at the Newington health care center for 16 years.

Fal said she thinks Healthbridge is not just harming the lives of its workers by reducing their wages and benefits, but that of the residents and the community as well.

Since the health of all the patients at the five centers are at risk, Fal thinks HealthBridge should negotiate the terms and reach an agreement that addresses the concerns of its staff, who have been committed to the centers for several years.

“We will return to work tomorrow if the company agrees to let us work under the terms of the old contract,” said Fal. “But we will not settle for these concessions.”

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