Advocates for elderly and disabled nursing home residents in Western Massachusetts are urging state regulators to take control of four nursing homes slated to close this spring, saying frail residents are being abruptly forced out, with some threatened with homelessness, if they don’t leave quickly.
Others are being told they will be placed in facilities more than an hour away, far from family and loved ones, if they don’t find alternative placements soon.
“This is outrageous,” said Paul Lanzikos, a former state elder affairs secretary and cofounder of Dignity Alliance Massachusetts, a coalition of groups working to overhaul long-term care.
“Their facilities should be able to continue operating [under state control] while there is a more deliberate, more careful, more rational, more caring way to empty the buildings,” he said.
The four homes are Willimansett Center East and West in Chicopee, Chapin Center in Springfield, and Governor’sCenter in Westfield. Dignity Alliance and Stavros Center for Independent Living, which fosters independence for people with disabilities, filed complaints Wednesday with the attorney general and the Department of Public Health, urging the state to take control of the four homes during the closure process to ensure rules are being followed and families treated fairly.
“Transitioning residents with complex medical and emotional needs is a delicate process, and transfer trauma is a major concern with residents who have been haphazardly placed,” the Stavros Center said in its complaint.
“Some residents may not survive this transition, or may suffer physically, emotionally, and socially,” it said.
Northeast Health Group, the company that owns the four nursing homes, did not respond to requests for comment.
The Department of Public Health said in a statement that its staff “will carefully review the information provided in the letters and gather additional information to determine if further investigation is necessary.” Thomas Dalton, a spokesperson for Attorney General Andrea Campbell, said the office is reviewing the complaints it received but declined further comment.
One woman who moved her 86-year-old father out of Willimansett West after the closure announcement described a rushed process.
“They told us if we didn’t find a place for a loved one, they would relocate them, and it could be on the Cape, it could be Pittsfield, wherever there was a bed,” said Judy, who asked that her family’s last name not be used for fear that her father may face retaliation in another nursing home.
For now, Judy is taking care of him in her Springfield home, with a hospital bed set up in her living room and ample help from visiting nurses and therapists.
On Feb. 6, in letters to residents and families, Northeast Health Group said it could not afford to keep the four facilities afloat after meeting state requirements to reduce occupancy from three and four residents in a room to no more than two.
After COVID-19 deaths tore through nursing homes at the start of the pandemic, the state in April 2021 updated regulations that gave facilities one year to comply with the two-person limit in rooms. Several companies have taken steps to comply, filing plans with the state for expansion to accommodate the new configurations, while others are suing to block the rule.
Judy said that one day after the company announced it would be closing, nursing home administrators told families in meetings that residents had to be out by early April. Yet state rules governing closing of nursing homes set a more expansive time frame for the transition, one that would give families until June 6.
“We have been going into these nursing homes, and that’s when I started to realize how egregious the whole thing was,” said Brianna Zimmerman, an advocate with Stavros Center for Independent Living.
“Families were being told they had to place the residents in Boston or Natick, which is hours away,” she said.
Zimmerman said she spoke with an administrator at Willimansett Center East on Thursday and was told all but four residents had already been transported out of the facility by then. It’s not clear how many were living there previously but in correspondence to the state health department, the company said its capacity was 69 beds.
In its complaints to the attorney general and the public health department, Stavros alleges Northeast Health Group is violating a number of state rules. It said Northeast immediately began telling residents they had to move out, even though state rules require that regulators must first approve a company’s closing plan. The state Department of Public Health has yet to approve Northeast’s plan.
Stavros and Dignity Alliance also allege the company appears to be moving more than five people out per day, a violation of state rules that aim for methodical, planned transitions with ample counseling for families.
Judy said her father, who is diabetic with heart problems and an amputation, is fearful of returning to another nursing home.
“A lot of staff jumped ship right away,” she said. “They kept trying to bring in staff from agencies, but a lot of times they were short staffed and if a loved one wasn’t there to watch out, forget it.”
Judy said she tried to find another facility for her father nearby, but given that more than 300 residents of the four closing facilities are all vying for beds in the area, it has been challenging.
State Senator John Velis, whose district includes much of the lower Connecticut River Valley in Western Massachusetts, has been leading a group of state lawmakers trying to help the families. He said the problems raised in the complaints are “deeply disturbing and require a robust and expansive response.”
“The Department of Public Health must utilize every statutory authority it has to ensure that residents are getting the necessary transition supports and are not being torn from their communities and forced to facilities far away from their loved ones,” Velis said in a statement.
The Department of Public Health said in a statement that it had conducted public hearings earlier this month and that it will now complete “a thorough review” of the facilities’ closure plan and all comments received at the public hearings. The agency did not offer a timetable for its review or comment on whether it will consider taking control of the facilities.
It said the department would “monitor the closure process to ensure the safe and orderly transfer of residents and that safe, high-quality resident care is maintained throughout.”
Asked what she hoped might come of any review or actions by state officials, Judy, the Springfield woman, said, “I would like to see things revamped and people being treated more like human beings.”