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Connecticut News

Connecticut legislators push inquiry into nursing home operator

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Danielle Wedderburn
/
WSHU
The Connecticut state Capitol building in Hartford.

The nursing home operator that already had one facility closed by the state last year because of a COVID outbreak is facing an investigation at another facility over allegations that as much as $250,000 that was supposed to go to employees was never distributed.

Several legislators have asked the state Department of Social Services to investigate why the JACC Healthcare Group has not given the employees at the Vanderman Place Nursing Home and Healthcare Facility in Willimantic 4.5% salary increases that the legislature approved last year.

The one-time bump in Medicaid funding for each nursing home provider was meant to increase the salaries of front-line workers who have dealt with the death and infections the pandemic has wrought on nursing home residents and staff.

At Vanderman, about 100 employees were eligible for the salary increase, but representatives from Teamsters Local 493 said none of its members has received a raise and that JACC has ignored inquiries from them and from DSS on where the money went.

Now several lawmakers from the Willimantic area are asking DSS Commissioner Deidre Gifford and the state Department of Public Health to do a full-scale investigation.

“Unfortunately, despite numerous requests by the staff, their representatives and others, the owners of Vanderman Place have denied receiving the funding and claim that they do not know where it is or where it went,” said the letter from Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, and State Reps. Susan Johnson, D-Windham, and Brian Smith, D-Colchester.

“In addition, it is our understanding that Vanderman Place ignored attempts by your department staff to answer email inquiries regarding where the funds went and why it has not been paid to the facility employees,” the legislators wrote.

“Management was obliged to use this increased funding for wage increases, effective on or before July 31, 2021,” the letter states.

The Department of Social Services “is considering financial action under the law if the ownership of Vanderman Place does not comply with using the 4.5% rate increase for its legislated purpose — wage enhancements for staff,” spokesman David Dearborn said in a statement to CT Mirror.

“DSS is evaluating whether additional financial penalties or other actions may be available should the ownership of Vanderman Place fail to comply.”

‘Bad employer’

The last financial report that Vanderman submitted to DSS shows that they spent about $5.6 million in salaries in 2020, including administrative staff that would not be eligible for the salary increase.

Union officials estimate the funding increase would be about $250,000 for the year, half of which should already have been paid to employees. In an August 2021 letter to the owners outlining the increase, DSS officials did not give an overall number of what they were sending to JACC.

“Not paying the employees the money that they are owed and deserve is unacceptable and shows them to be an extremely bad employer,” said Craig Mitchell, president of Teamsters Local 493, which represents the majority of the employees at the facility.

“These are the individuals who have been on the front line since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is wrong to play a financial shell game with the employees’ money that is owed them,” Mitchell said. “All we want is for the state to step up and do something about this.”

DSS officials did not comment Monday on the letter or its ongoing investigation. Flexer and other lawmakers said DSS has told them they are aware of the situation and are investigating. On Jan. 11, the DSS wrote a letter to JACC inquiring about the money. It requested a response within 30 days.

Attempts to reach JACC officials were unsuccessful. The company’s website was not working, and a call to the phone number listed in its annual report to DSS now belongs to a towing company. A woman who identified herself only as an administrator at Vanderman did not comment and referred calls to the corporate office.

Vanderman Place is licensed for 114 beds, and as of last week there were 77 residents living there.

Three Rivers Health Care shut down

In September 2020, state officials took the unusual step of closing down the Three Rivers Health Care facility in Norwich following a COVID outbreak.

In July 2020, 22 residents and six staff members at Three Rivers were infected and four residents died. DPH investigators determined that a nurse had gone on vacation at the Rhode Island shore and came back to work even though a few family members were displaying symptoms of the virus. She ended up testing positive as well.

At that time, Gifford, who was the interim DPH Commissioner, said the investigation revealed numerous violations of infection control, staffing and other practices at Three Rivers.

The state appointed a temporary manager to run the facility, but she reported “serious, systemic problems still existing at the nursing home.” Gifford then ordered all of the remaining residents be transferred out of Three Rivers.

“Today marks a very sad but necessary step we must take to keep the residents of this nursing home safe and healthy,” Gifford said at the time. “Closing a nursing home such as Three Rivers is a complicated process, and we are committed to doing it in an orderly way to minimize disruption in the lives of residents.”

At that time, DPH officials said that they had inspected JACC’s other two facilities in Connecticut — Vanderman Place in Willimantic and Davis Place in Danielson — and had found none of the issues they found in Norwich.

But State Sen. Cathy Osten, who also has lobbied DSS to be more proactive in investigating what is happening at the Willimantic facility, said Monday there are “indications that residents are at risk” at Vanderman Place.

Garbage piled up

Osten said JACC is not paying some of its vendors and contractors for vital services, such as ambulance transports to doctor appointments and food vendors that provide special dietary meals.

“Not only are they not paying the salaries, but they also aren’t paying vendors, and I’m very concerned for the people who are living in that facility right now,” Osten said.

“If they haven’t been paying vendors, then those people are left with very hard decisions on whether to continue to provide services without getting paid, because they know the impact stopping would have on residents,” Osten said.

Among the vendors they stopped paying was one that provided garbage collection, according to Johnson, one of the legislators who signed the letter to DSS seeking an investigation.

“They weren’t paying to have their garbage collected until the local senior housing facility and Windham Hospital complained to the town about it,” Johnson said.

JACC Healthcare, and a subsidiary Bear Mountain Healthcare, owns nursing homes in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

They owned three in Connecticut until Three Rivers in Norwich was shut down, and they recently sold Davis Place located in Danielson.

Union officials and several legislators said JACC officials have told them they are selling the Windham building to the same group that purchased the Danielson facility.

Johnson said she is concerned that JACC will use the sale of the property to avoid their obligations.

“We are afraid they are going to sell it and take off with the money and take advantage of the state,” Johnson said.