Fear, uncertainty follow abrupt closure of Healdsburg skilled nursing facility
Karen Tovani has done about everything she can think of to find a new home for her life partner, Peter Bantowsky.
Bantowsky has been living at Healdsburg Senior Living Community for a little over two years.
But federal investigators have accused the facility’s owner, Pacifica Senior Living, of infractions like chilly room temperatures, issues with cleanliness, broken equipment, rough handling by at least one employee — and other problems more systemic.
Pacifica cites factors outside of its control, but that’s of little concern to Tovani. Just three days ahead of the impending closure, she saw her options narrowing.
“I’m actually feeling sick to my stomach,” said Tovani, 75. “I have two jobs. I’m supposed to be at one of them Friday morning. But I’m thinking I may have to cancel. I may have to lie in front of a bus.”
On Dec. 29, family members who had loved ones living in the 38-bed skilled nursing unit at the facility were told they had until Jan. 15 to find new accommodations. Most of them were able to do so. But five people, including Bantowsky, remain in the skilled nursing wing of the home. The state says they will be moved Friday. No one knows where, though officials have mentioned sites as far away as Sacramento and Oakland.
“To me, this is a question of the state failing its most vulnerable constituents, the ones they should be taking most care of,” said Bantowsky’s daughter, Jeanne Peregrine. “How can we call ourselves civilized when we treat our elderly this way? We can’t.”
Practically everything about this case has exasperated observers, from the apparent abdication of care by the owner of the facility to the abrupt announcement of closure; from the lack of state intervention to perceived reluctance on the part of other local elder care providers to absorb displaced Medi-Cal patients.
“I think it’s been completely botched,” said Tony Chicotel, a lawyer for the nonprofit California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. “I just feel terrible for the residents. The feds decertified (Healdsburg Senior Living). It seems pretty irresponsible to not take some sort of ownership in what’s happening.”
Circumstances weren’t always so dire at the long-term care home near Highway 101 in Healdsburg, which offered skilled nursing, assisted living and memory care.
“It was a gem in our community,” said Marie Butler.
Butler’s husband, Richard Pellegrini, entered the memory care unit in 2012, and was transferred to the skilled nursing section a few years later. They enjoyed the amenities. The home sponsored quilt shows, casino nights and holiday boutiques.
“I have nothing to say about the prior owners or administrators, at all,” Butler said. “They were always available.”
According to Butler and others, it began to unravel under the management of Pacifica Senior Living, which bought the property four years ago. Pacifica is one of the largest elder care providers in the country, with 88 “communities,” including 46 in California.
Most of the Healdsburg senior staff stayed after the transition, and morale remained high. But the environment started to deteriorate rapidly about a year ago, several people told The Press Democrat.
Healdsburg Senior Living’s shortcomings are documented in 33 allegations substantiated by the state Community Care Licensing Division in 2021.
Even more damning is a 180-page report issued by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) on Jan. 5. Chicotel, who has worked for the senior advocacy nonprofit for 15 years, called it “an investigative report like I’ve never read before.”
CMS noted two instances of what it calls “immediate jeopardy” to residents found by investigators during visits on Nov. 18-19. One instance involved a male resident whom staff failed to deter from a pattern of inappropriate sexual behavior that, investigators said, could have left female residents unsafe.
The second instance was under the heading of Administration, or leadership.
“I’ve seen reports where day-to-day conditions were worse,” Chicotel said. “I’ve seen the worst there is. But I’ve never seen such a complete leadership vacuum, almost to the point where no one was in charge. There’s no way the day-to-day quality could not have been affected by the vacuum in leadership.”
According to family members, Pacifica started purging employees about a year ago.
“It was like a domino effect,” Butler said. “Staff either quit, or were pressured to leave or were fired. Until there was basically no one in charge.”
Perhaps most disturbing, the facility began operating without a consistent director of nursing, a situation that Crista Barnett Nelson, executive director of Senior Advocacy Services for Sonoma County, likened to “not having a pilot for your airplane.”