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State asks judge to close Waterbury Gardens nursing home

Hazel Saunders sits in her room at Waterbury Gardens. She says she has found happiness at the nursing home like nowhere else.
Shahrzad Rasekh
CT Mirror
Hazel Saunders sits in her room at Waterbury Gardens. She says she has found happiness at the nursing home like nowhere else.

The state of Connecticut has asked a Superior Court judge to close a Waterbury nursing home that is costing the state nearly $1 million a month to operate.

The state took receivership of Waterbury Gardens in 2019 and has operated it since then. But in her most recent report, New Haven attorney Katharine Sacks, the appointed receiver who is overseeing the operation of the home, cited severe staff shortages, continued cash flow issues and problems with the building that make it infeasible to keep the facility open.

At a hearing in front of Judge Claudia Baio in Hartford on Thursday morning, Sacks said the facility is “no longer financially viable” and that it is not a good candidate for sale because it would require nearly $3 million in improvements and a large mold remediation project.

Sacks said as of this week there are only 28 residents left in Waterbury Gardens, which has 50 beds. She said seven residents are on ventilators and at least three others are tracheostomy patients.

Waterbury Gardens is one of only two nursing homes in the state with ventilators.

Many of the residents watched the courtroom hearing on a remote feed from a lounge at Waterbury Gardens. The group wasn’t allowed to address the court because about 20 of them had submitted affidavits asking that the judge keep the facility open.

One of those who asked the judge not to close Waterbury Gardens is Hazel Saunders, who came to Waterbury Gardens from a Bronx, N.Y., hospital earlier this year. She is one of the residents on a ventilator.

In an interview with the CT Mirror, Saunders said she lived in several nursing homes before Waterbury Gardens and had bad experiences. Waterbury Gardens is the first place she’s felt at home, she said.

Raymond Petrario and Hazel Saunders discuss a residents’ petition in Saunders’ room. “It’s against what America stands for,” Saunders said. “You do not take from the needy.”
Shahrzad Rasekh
CT Mirror
Raymond Petrario and Hazel Saunders discuss a residents’ petition in Saunders’ room. “It’s against what America stands for,” Saunders said. “You do not take from the needy.”

“One I left almost running,” Saunders, 77, said of a previous facility. “I have gone from place to place, and it has been hell, all the things I went through. … Then we found this place, and oh my God. It’s everything I wanted. I love the care. I love the people. I love the staff. Everything about this place is what I needed.”

One day about a month ago, she said, state officials showed up and told people the facility would close. Stunned, her fellow residents began moving out of the building.

“The people who left wanted to remain here, but they were scared,” Saunders said. “[The state] scared the bejesus out of everybody. Everybody’s faces dropped. We didn’t know that was going to happen.”

Despite the challenges, she hopes Waterbury Garden will stay open.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” she said. “How can you disenfranchise people who are already disenfranchised? We don’t want to be in anybody’s nursing home. We want to be home. But there’s an absolute need. And in the state of Connecticut, there are only two places like this. Why the hell would they want to close one?”

Union files motion to keep facility open

Sacks told the judge that the state Department of Social Services notified her in June that the facility was well below occupancy threshold that the state requires and that, “consistent with the state’s strategic rebalancing plan,” the home should be closed. She was told that there are nearly 1,600 available nursing home beds within 15 miles of Waterbury.

As for the ventilator and tracheostomy residents, Sacks said, she has found beds for them at either the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain or the Gaylord Rehabilitation Center in Wallingford. A few of the residents that require a ventilator have already been moved to the Village Green of Bristol, the only other long-term care facility with a ventilator unit in the state.

Long Term Care Ombudsman Mairead Painter told the judge her office has heard from “two very different groups of people within Waterbury Gardens.”

“Many residents have lived there for years, and it is their home, and the staff is their family, and they feel like their concerns about closing it have fallen on deaf ears,” Painter said. “Many others have already transitioned to another facility or home because they felt the quality of care and the condition of the facility had gone down.”

In an unusual move, SEIU 1999NE, which represents many of the employees at Waterbury Gardens, filed a motion to intervene on their behalf to keep it open.

“These people have been through hell and high water the past five years, from receivership to COVID to now their home being closed,” said Suzanne Clark, the secretary-treasurer of 1199.

Clark said that, since it is only one of two facilities in the state with a ventilator unit, closing it would be “short-sighted” and that “given the impact this facility has on its residents, it can’t be cookie-cuttered like another nursing home.”

Union officials believe that the facility should be sold, not closed, and recently presented three nursing home providers who would be interested in purchasing the business. But lawyers for the attorney general’s office said that DSS Commissioner Andrea Barton Reeves met with prospective buyers, but there was no indication a sale could happen.

Milford attorney Kevin A. Creane, who is representing the union, said the meeting with the commissioner was informational but not a full-scale sales presentation.

“Obviously today we are concerned about the residents that are in the facility, but what is going to happen in the future for people who need ventilators if you take away 15 beds forever?” Creane said.

Waterbury Gardens is one of two nursing homes in the state with a ventilator unit. Now, it is at risk of closing.
Shahrzad Rasekh
CT Mirror
Waterbury Gardens is one of two nursing homes in the state with a ventilator unit. Now, it is at risk of closing.

Not viable

In her report, Sacks said a DPH inspector recently visited the facility to do a 15-month recertification and indicated there were numerous problems with the physical plant, as well as care, that would need to be addressed if the facility stays open. DPH has not issued a final inspection report yet.

Sacks said most of the issues around care involve staff shortages.

“Staffing shortages are attributable to general shortages in the marketplace, wariness about the future of the facility and the fact that prior management failed to plan vacation schedules for the Nursing Department around facility operational requirements to best meet resident needs,” Sacks wrote.

“The facility continues to experience massive numbers of last minute call-outs and no-shows from clinical employees, a harrowing daily experience requiring urgent last-minute calls to staffing agencies,” Sacks said. “This puts the quality of care at direct risk.”

She also said that DPH officials estimate it would cost $3 million to upgrade the physical plant, not counting the expense of dealing with the mold in several of the bathroom areas at Waterbury Gardens.

The attorney general’s office agrees with Sacks’ assessment that the facility is no longer “financially viable” and must be closed.

“The evidence is overwhelming that it is no longer financially viable,” Assistant Attorney General Daniel B. Shapiro said. “The state is spending over a million dollars a month to keep it open, and that doesn’t include the major physical plant issues that will require millions more.”

The state asked Baio to issue a ruling from the bench Thursday to expedite the process. Sacks said if the motion to close is granted, it will take the state months to relocate everyone and formally shutter the facility.

But Baio said the issue “was too important” to rule quickly and that she wants to review the residents’ statements and all the reports before deciding the nursing home’s fate.

Baio did not schedule any other hearings or indicate when she might issue a ruling.

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.