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Editorial: Protect nursing home residents

A continuing series of articles in The Buffalo News makes clear a central fact about nursing homes: As more facilities in Western New York are bought by out-of-town owners, declining patient care is liable to follow. It’s a trend that cannot be allowed to continue.

It’s a concern that at some point touches nearly every family. As a recent News story pointed out, about 7,000 people live in nursing homes in Erie and Niagara counties. In some of them, owners are pursuing a strategy of cutting staff while taking on residents who need special care. It’s a policy that invites disaster.

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services publishes ratings of nursing homes, trying to sort out the good from the bad. That’s a help to consumers shopping for a facility, but getting a low one-star rating doesn’t mean a struggling home has to shut its doors.

The announcement last week that the state Health Department appointed a receiver to take over two nursing homes in Buffalo brought some sense of hope to those low-rated facilities. Still, having a receiver is no guarantee of better outcomes, as the history of those homes shows.

Emerald South Nursing and Rehabilitation Center was fined $10,000 after one resident was beaten to death in 2016 by another resident in the dementia unit. The Health Department has recommended it also be fined for the 2018 death of another resident, William Strasner, who fell while climbing out a third-floor window.

Emerald North Nursing and Rehabilitation Center was fined $100,647 by the state and federal governments in 2017 for various infractions. Last week it was announced that Emerald South and Emerald North will be run by Grand Healthcare System, a New York City-based company that operates nursing homes across the state.

But Grand Healthcare, under CEO Jeremy B. Strauss, was itself ordered to pay more than $2 million in back wages and damages to 844 underpaid employees at five of its locations, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Nevertheless, Strauss was honored with a Healthcare Heroes Award, presented by the Queens Tribune publication in December 2016.

Buffalo’s Emerald South and Emerald North have both been operated since 2013 by a company owned by Long Island resident Judy Landa, a passive investor who has no involvement in the four Erie County nursing homes her company operates.

A company owned by her husband, Benjamin Landa, was a receiver appointed in July 2012 to run Empire South and Empire North for more than a year before his wife’s company was licensed to operate the two homes. That makes Grand Healthcare the second receiver in six years appointed to run the troubled Emerald properties.

At one of the homes, Benjamin Landa’s company cut staff and other expenses to save about $1 million, according to Health Department records. At the same time, the company increased revenues by admitting “difficult to discharge” patients. Their need for increased care resulted in higher Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements to the nursing homes, the records show.

Sixteen nursing homes in Erie and Niagara counties have been bought in the past 11 years by out-of-town investors. Most of those homes are understaffed, compared to nursing homes across the state.

At one, Ellicott Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing on Buffalo’s West Side, a resident named Sally Keller lost an eye after receiving eye drops in the wrong eye after cataract surgery.

All isn’t lost for families who depend on nursing homes. According to U.S. News and World Report, 11 homes in Erie and Niagara counties are rated among the best in the country. U.S. News based its conclusions on the federal Medicare and Medicaid ratings. There are models to emulate.

Nursing home owners, particularly ones who have no ties to Western New York, may not always see, firsthand, the consequences of their policies. Particularly in the lowest-rated properties, it’s important for families and employees to speak up when they see wrongdoing or neglect, and for government officials to act.

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