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Buffalo's troubled Emerald South nursing home may close or merge, sources say

The future of a troubled Buffalo nursing home remains uncertain days after the state Department of Health appointed a receiver to temporarily run it, according to three sources familiar with the situation.

The sources said the state and receiver may decide to close the Emerald South Rehabilitation and Care Center or merge it with the nearby Emerald North nursing home, which was also put into receivership on Monday by the state.

Emerald South is under investigation by the Health Department because of the June 4 death of a resident, William Strasner, who fell while climbing out of a third-floor window at the Delaware Avenue facility. Workers have protested unsafe conditions for residents and understaffing at Emerald South.

Emerald South and Emerald North were the focus of a Buffalo News story published Oct. 21 about out-of-town, for-profit investors operating poorly rated nursing homes in Erie and Niagara counties. The two facilities have been fined a total of $112,647 for violations in the past six years.

The Health Department designated Grand Healthcare System of New York City as receiver to operate the two Emerald nursing homes for up to 18 months. Grand Healthcare paid the owner of the nursing homes $3.5 million for Emerald North’s building and land and for the operating licenses of both homes. Emerald South’s real estate was not part of the sale.

Jeremy B. Strauss, chief executive officer of the for-profit Grand Healthcare, said that before he submits an application for state approval for a license to permanently operate Emerald South, he will wait for direction from the Health Department.

“Paperwork for the certificate of need for Emerald North should be submitted within a month to the state,” Strauss said. “The paperwork for Emerald South, not as quickly, because the DOH needs to work out some things.”

Health Department spokesman Jeffrey Hammond said it is up to the receiver to decide what the next steps are. He did not answer questions about whether Emerald South may be closed or merged with Emerald North.

Tony Szczygiel, a local advocate for nursing home residents, reacted with caution over the future of Emerald South.

“The closing of any nursing home, or merging of two facilities, must be done thoughtfully and with respect for the current residents.  But Erie County simply has more nursing homes than we need,” Szczygiel said. “If two or three nursing homes were to close, the remainder should be operating more efficiently. There are no guarantees, but this offers the chance for improved quality of care.”

Erie County has a total of 5,714 nursing home beds, and the state says that's 423 beds more than what's needed, according to the Health Department's 2016 figures.

Strauss said he has already renamed Emerald North the Buffalo Community Healthcare Center to show Buffalo residents that Grand Healthcare is committed to improving care to residents there.

He says he’s also planning other improvements, such as new electric beds and air conditioning in every room throughout the buildings. Emerald South, with 122 beds, is at 1175 Delaware Ave. Emerald North, with 95 beds, is a short distance away at 1205 Delaware. Currently there are 64 residents at Emerald South and 68 at Emerald North.

A resident of Ellicott Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Buffalo, gets help from staff through a doorway. The nursing home in 2017 charged $495 a day for residents paying their own way or with long-term care insurance, according to the state Department of Health. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

Companies owned by Judy Landa of Long Island bought the licenses to operate the two nursing homes for $2.6 million in 2013. Her husband, Benjamin, bought the real estate for both homes in 2012 for $1.6 million.

The Landas cut staff while accepting higher-need residents at the Emerald nursing homes. In 2016, resident Ruth Murray was beaten to death by another resident at Emerald South after she wandered into his room in the dementia unit. This past summer the federal government took the unusual step of designating Emerald South a “Special Focus Facility,” after Strasner, 87, fell to his death. Residents complained that they were getting poor care there.

As a result of continuing problems at the facilities, the health department appointed limited liability companies owned by Strauss to take over the nursing homes. Strauss' Grand Healthcare company already owns 14 nursing homes across the state.

Strauss says he is not receiving a fee for his services as receiver while the sale of the operating licenses is pending. The Health Department's Public Health and Health Planning Council can take a year or longer to review and approve a new operator's license.

The News, in its ongoing series on nursing homes in Erie and Niagara counties, reported that most of the 16 homes bought by out-of-town, for-profit investors since 2007 are among the worst-rated in the region, have a high rate of complaints that led to citations, and have received a disproportionate amount of fines. At many of the 16 homes, registered nurses spend less time per day with residents than the state average.

The federal government rates Emerald South overall as a two-star, or "below average" nursing home, and Emerald North as a one-star, or "much below average" home, the lowest rating possible.

Strauss said he is not just another for-profit, out-of-town buyer acquiring a Buffalo area nursing home.

Strauss, who bought his first nursing home in Dutchess County in 2001, says he plans to make substantial investments to improve the quality of life for the residents.

“The days of single-owned facilities are unfortunately a thing of the past. You need to have vast local resources in order to provide proper care,” he said, adding that he already has a regional vice president who oversees a Batavia nursing home he acquired in August.

Elected officials and union representatives say they are willing to give Strauss a chance to improve the Emeralds.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said he has met with Strauss and is encouraged by plans to make a “sizable investment” that includes the purchase of new motorized beds at both homes.

“There are hand cranked beds at the two nursing homes and that’s an example of what most people would think would not be in a nursing facility today,” Poloncarz said. “I’m pleased that Mr. Strauss is committed to replacing all of the hand cranked beds with modern automated ones.”

Democratic Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, whose district takes in the two nursing homes, says that a change in operations at the Emeralds was necessary to begin the process of improving quality of service and treating residents with dignity.

“I have not yet met Mr. Strauss, but I want to look him in the eye and I hope I see compassion. I understand this is a business, but I think that the business can and should be run in a compassionate manner,” Peoples-Stokes said.

Todd Hobler, vice president of union local 1199 SEIU, pointed out that unlike the former owners of the Emeralds, Strauss is not an “absentee operator nor passive investor.”

“He has hit the ground running meeting with workers, public officials and the union,” Hobler said. “It would not take much for the new operator to do better than the last group.”

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