First District Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson stood outside of Westchester Health and Rehabilitation, 2901 S. Wolf Rd. in Westchester, on May 6 to call for the state to “reimagine” how it handles for-profit nursing home facilities, where reports of lax regulation and poor working conditions are making already vulnerable senior citizens even more vulnerable to COVID-19.
As of May 1, Westchester Health and Rehabilitation reported 47 cases of COVID-19 and 12 deaths related to the disease, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
An analysis of IDPH health data by WBEZ shows that the hazards are spread across nursing homes throughout the state. According to WBEZ’s analysis, 44 percent of the COVID-19 deaths in Illinois were tied to nursing homes.
On May 1, WBEZ reported, IDPH data showed that “1,082 coronavirus deaths were tied to long-term-care facilities and assisted living establishments — 73% more than the 625 reported a week earlier and nearly four times the 286 reported on April 17.”
Loretta Brady, a resident of Chicago’s Austin community and one of Johnson’s constituents, said that her mother, 83-year-old Lottie Smith, is a resident at the Westchester facility. Brady said that her mother was diagnosed with COVID-19 in late March, but that the nursing home didn’t notify her until days later.
“My mother had to be rushed to Loyola with a heart rate of 130 … and had to be on a ventilator,” Brady said during Wednesday’s press conference. “Nobody [from the nursing home] said anything. She had to stay in the hospital for 10 days fighting for her life. To date, nobody has told me how she contracted the virus.”
Brady said that since contracting COVID-19 in March, her mother has tested positive for the virus again. And the family, she said, is still in the dark.
“Nobody is telling us anything,” Brady said. “We’re asking for help!”
Glenda Harris said that her mother, Carrie Claybon, 83, was also a resident at the Westchester facility. Harris said that she attempted to take her mother out of the facility even before the COVID-19 crisis hit, but officials at the facility wouldn’t allow it. Claybon died from COVID-19 on March 30.
“Now, my mom is deceased and now all I got is a memory — all because these people wouldn’t cooperate with me,” Harris said. “They didn’t have to take care of her. I was wiling to take care of her myself.”
Harris and Brady both complained about the alleged treatment their parents received at the Westchester facility — from a lack of communication about their parents’ conditions from nursing home staff to outright neglect.
“Plenty of times my mom would come back at night time, from being at dialysis four and five hours, sometimes the transportation would be late picking her up,” Harris said.
“When she would get [back to the nursing home], the bed wouldn’t be made. We’d have to get someone to make the bed,” she said. “I have pictures of when my mom would be at dialysis, we’d look at her hand and she’d have poop on her hand because they didn’t clean her and she’d scratch herself. I kept complaining about this.”
A representative from the Westchester facility could not be reached for comment on May 7, but in a statement sent to the Chicago Tribune, Westchester Health and Rehabilitation Center spokeswoman Annaliese Impink outlined precautions the facility has taken since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have implemented every guideline, measure, and protocol provided by the health authorities,” Impink explained. “We are working closely with the health authorities to follow their guidance and will continue to be transparent … while maintaining the dignity and privacy of each of our residents.”
During the May 6 press conference, Commissioner Johnson, said that the state “has to step up its supervision and oversight,” before calling for the Gov. J.B. Pritzker to order an infectious disease survey at the Westchester facility. Johnson said that he’s also contacted Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office about the matter.
Johnson pointed out that there’s already $240 million in state funding allocated for nursing home operators in the form of a Medicaid reimbursement increase that state lawmakers approved in 2019, as part of Gov. Pritzker’s most recent budget.
According to a report by Skilled Nursing News, $70 million of that $240 million funding boost is associated with staffing mandates. Nursing home operators that fail to meet required minimum staffing levels won’t get the increased Medicaid reimbursement. The money, however, still hasn’t been doled out.
According to its profile available at Medicare.gov, Westchester Health and Rehabilitation has an overall rating of one star out of a possible five, which indicates that it performs “much below average” in the areas of health inspections, quality measures and staffing.
Late last month, Pritzker ordered all nursing homes to test residents and staff. And the governor has said in the past that nursing home safety is a priority for his administration and has called for more support and staffing at the facilities. The governor did not directly address the Medicaid reimbursement funding during his daily press briefing on May 6.
Johnson said that the state should use its budgetary and regulatory authority over for-profit nursing home and require them to provide more personal protective equipment to employees, to increase workers’ wages, to require proper certification among employees, and to provide hazard pay for frontline nursing home workers, among other preconditions for those nursing homes securing additional state aid.
The commissioner said that the state should also consider fining, or even placing into receivership, those nursing homes that fail to meet basic requirements.
Johnson also echoed a demand expressed earlier this week by American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today, a grassroots disability rights organization.
“The top demand is the call for an executive order from the Governor to immediately rescue residents by moving them from nursing facilities into non-institutional, lower-risk settings and to reduce facility occupancy to no more than one resident per room,” the organization explained in a statement.
“If we can build facilities at a moment’s notice in the case of an enormous outbreak, like McCormick Place, why can’t we reimagine how we handle [nursing home] facilities struck by this virus?” said Johnson, who also lent his support to frontline nursing home workers, such as receptionists, cooks and certified nursing assistants, at at least 60 Chicago area nursing homes who are poised to strike on May 8.
The workers, whose contracted expired May 1, are calling for higher wages, hazard pay and increased staffing levels, among other demands. The commissioner called for better working conditions, higher wages and hazard pay at both unionized and non-unionized facilities.
“Folks getting paid $10 and $12 an hour is unacceptable. They should get a minimum of $15 an hour. There are workers who are getting hazard pay across this country,” he said. “Why is that you have a profession that is overwhelmingly women who are black and brown that somehow we get tied up with our purse strings? […]
“The families who lost loved ones, we’re not going to get them back. But can we at least attempt to stop other families from losing loved ones? That’s what our politics should be about in this moment. If we can find ways to bail out corporations, if we can find dollars to give tax breaks to the wealthiest people in the country, we can’t find an opportunity to raise wages to $15 an hour? We can’t provide hazard pay?”