Aaron Mendelson, LAist, July 19 2021
The letters from the state’s public health department to nursing home mogul Crystal Solorzano were blunt: “You have not provided evidence satisfactory to be licensed.”
Solorzano, whose Southern California-based ReNew Health is connected to nursing homes throughout the state, had applied to acquire nine additional facilities in April 2020. Despite the state’s denial of her applications, businesses connected to Solorzano have operated those nine homes anyway during the pandemic. That’s because Solorzano appealed the decision, and is legally permitted to continue her involvement in the homes in the meantime.
Now, more than a year after the denials were originally issued, a judge with the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings and Appeals plans to hold a hearing. The proceedings are being conducted virtually. They begin on Monday morning and are expected to last about five days.
At issue is whether Solorzano is fit to run the nursing homes. The California Department of Public Health’s denial letters to Solorzano cite a long list of serious issues at her facilities. Regulators reviewed three years of records and found 128 federal violations — including 14 in the most severe category of “Immediate Jeopardy.”
The agency also documented 51 state violations issued at Solorzano’s nursing homes, and three instances in which her facilities failed to meet even minimum staffing requirements. The poor care and regulatory failures were detailed in an LAist investigation.
Solorzano and her legal team will likely push back aggressively at the hearing. She and a spokesman did not respond to a request for comment, but in a statement in March, a spokesman for Solorzano’s company, ReNew Health, wrote: “Ms. Solorzano is fully qualified to own and operate nursing homes, and in fact has specialized in acquiring troubled facilities and turning them around to preserve and maintain critical bed space that would have otherwise been unavailable during the pandemic.”
The nine nursing homes in question are only part of a network of at least 26 facilities connected to Solorzano and ReNew, which provide care to about 2,000 nursing home residents across California.
Even if the administrative law judge sides with the Department of Public Health, the decision would not necessarily be the end of the road for Solorzano and those nine facilities. She could appeal an adverse ruling, which could leave her running the nursing homes for additional months or years.
“The state has no willingness to evict operators that it has found to be unfit,” says Tony Chicotel, a staff attorney for the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. He has followed the cases of Solorzano and another operator, Shlomo Rechnitz, who has been denied licenses to take over nursing homes. Chicotel calls the situation a “never-ending treadmill,” where even a license denial from the state doesn’t trigger decisive action.
‘Fraudulent Documents’ And A Possible FBI Interview
In addition to dozens of violations at Solorzano’s nursing homes, the CDPH’s denial letter also questions her character. The department wrote to her that its review “revealed that in or around July 2008, you submitted fraudulent documents to obtain your nursing home administrator license,” specifically citing a fraudulent college transcript from New York-based Touro College, which also has campuses in California.
LAist has obtained that transcript. It indicates that Solorzano graduated with honors from Touro’s School of Health Services.
The problem? Touro College does not have a “School of Health Services.” The institution instead has a School of Health Sciences. “It is a distinction with a difference and makes the transcript itself appear invalid on its face,” said Elisheva Schlam, a spokesperson for Touro.
Schlam said Solorzano did not attend the school.
In addition to considering quality of care, state regulators who review ownership applications consider whether an “applicant is of reputable and responsible character.” The state cited the allegedly fraudulent transcript in its denial letter.
“The state has said — rightfully — that character matters,” Chicotel said. “And then the issue is whether Crystal Solorzano has the requisite character to qualify for a license. I think that’s going to be a big piece of this hearing.”
Solorzano faces a separate hearing over her nursing home administrator license, which she submitted the transcript to attain. That hearing is currently on hold. In that case, an attorney for CDPH wrote the credential is a “license [Solorzano] procured by fraud, misrepresentation, and deception.”
“Quite simply, [Solorzano] is not qualified to hold a NHA license,” the attorney wrote.
Attorneys for Solorzano asserted that the department lacks standing since her nursing home administrator license has lapsed, an argument rejected by an administrative law judge.(A nursing home administrator license is not required to own nursing homes.)
This week’s hearing on the nursing home licenses comes at a dramatic moment for Solorzano and her businesses. Several startling details have emerged from filings in a divorce case involving Solorzano and her husband, Randy Hernandez.
In one filing, an attorney for Hernandez writes that a ReNew executive was recently interviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation “regarding Crystal’s business practices.” An FBI spokesperson declined to comment. “I would not be able to confirm or deny this particular activity,” the FBI’s Laura Eimiller said.
Solorzano did not respond to a question about the alleged FBI interview. When reached at her home, the ReNew executive, Aneta Handian, declined to comment. In a subsequent email, her attorney referred to Handian’s “prior relationship” with ReNew. And, he added, “she suggests that any inquiries you have be directed to ReNew.”
The filing also alleges that Solorzano “was going to remotely access Aneta’s computer and iPhone to ‘shut her down’’’ after the FBI interview. The allegation echoes a 2018 claim made in a separate legal case in which a former ReNew employee alleged that “her phone was erased and wiped of all data” after she reported sexual harassment by ReNew staff and the administrator — Solorzano’s father — at a related nursing home.
The divorce case, which was filed in June, presents new details about Solorzano’s luxurious lifestyle. Her husband estimates that Solorzano’s yearly income is $7 million to $10 million per year, and that their yearly expenses exceed $1.4 million. Their lavish lifestyle included flights on private jets and splurging $2 million on a yacht for Solorzano’s father, according to filings by Hernandez.
Assessor records in Florida also show that, in May, Solorzano purchased a five bedroom, five bathroom home in Miami Beach for $5.9 million.
The situation for patients in nursing homes connected to Solorzano has been far less glamorous. In one facility, inspectors documented 93 rodent droppings, including several in a facility’s kitchen. At another, CDPH investigators found “deficient practices [that] resulted in a widespread outbreak of COVID-19.”
At least 220 people have died of COVID-19 in the 26 nursing homes connected to Solorzano, according to an analysis of federal data by LAist. Among those deaths, 94 were in the nine nursing homes where the CDPH has rejected Solorzano’s ownership applications.
Those nursing homes have been the recipients of hundreds of millions in government payments: facilities connected to ReNew Health and Solorzano received more than $428 million in Medicare and Medi-Cal payments between 2016 and 2019.
After LAist’s investigation into Solorzano was published in April 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom donated a $10,000 political contribution from ReNew Health Consulting Services to charity, and members of California’s Congressional delegation said they were “appalled” and “horrified” by the details of the reporting.