Members of Congress React To LAist Nursing Home Investigation: ‘Appalled,’ ‘Horrified,’ ‘Gravest Of Crimes’

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By Aaron Mendelson and Elly Yu, LAist, April 28 2021

Since last spring, at least 23 residents at Villa Mesa Care Center in Upland have died from COVID-19, according to federal data.

California nursing home chain ReNew Health has been responsible for repeated failures in patient care — so many that the state health department moved to block its CEO, Crystal Solorzano, from taking over nine nursing facilities last year.

Yet, due to a loophole in the state’s slow-moving licensing process, Solorzano’s businesses are running those homes and several others, LAist revealed in an investigation published earlier this month.

Several members of California’s Congressional delegation have reacted to our story with alarm and calls for change.

“I was horrified by some of the reporting on conditions in these facilities,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar, who represents part of the Inland Empire — including a facility where at least 23 residents died from COVID-19.

“It’s upsetting, shocking and it needs to be fixed,” said Rep. Mark DeSaulnier. His Bay Area district includes Orinda, where a Solorzano nursing home suffered from a “severe lack of staffing,” according to state investigators, and where a state citation said that “deficient practices” led to a widespread COVID outbreak.

It’s upsetting, shocking and it needs to be fixed.

Rep. Mark DeSaulnier

A former employee at the Orinda facility told LAist that the nursing home’s management staged PPE to create a favorable impression of safety measures, an allegation he also made to investigators who were looking for signs of elder abuse there.

DeSaulnier expressed concern over the way the facility was operated. “I am appalled by the neglect and incompetence,” he said. He called for changes in the way Medicare provides funds to nursing homes: “You can’t assume people are going to do the right thing, unfortunately.”

He also criticized the California Department of Public Health’s licensing system for nursing home owners, detailed in LAist’s reporting. “We must also address the state’s licensing process that allows bad actors, like ReNew Health CEO Crystal Solorzano, to continue harming our elderly population,” DeSaulnier said.

L.A.-area Congressman Adam Schiff, who represents a district with two ReNew-connected facilities, also called for an overhaul of the system in response to the investigation.

“I support efforts in the state of California to increase enforcement and to close the loophole so every operator of a nursing home has a license in good standing before they can take over care, just like we would expect in any other health field,” Schiff said in a statement. “It shouldn’t have taken a once-in-a-century pandemic, and thousands of deaths, to get the public and government to pay attention to failing treatment at skilled nursing facilities.”

Currently, California nursing home owners can take over a facility while their application for licenses are still pending. A state bill introduced by Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi seeks to end that practice. The bill would require nursing home owners to secure state approval before being allowed to operate a facility — but the measure has been pushed back until next year.

Rep. Judy Chu’s San Gabriel Valley district borders Schiff’s and includes two ReNew-connected nursing homes. “Any abuse or neglect at nursing homes is among the gravest of crimes,” Chu said in a statement. “Congress also has a role to play in protecting seniors,” she added, echoing patient advocates who say the federal government needs to take a stronger role in overseeing care and regulating who can own nursing homes.

In 2019, Chu sponsored a bill designed to increase staffing levels at nursing homes, boost penalties and safeguard whistleblowers. It would have also required specific consent before patients could be administered some psychotropic drugs.

That bill failed to advance out of committee two years ago, but other legislation could usher in reforms. President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal calls for $400 billion in funding for long-term care. And a bill to increase oversight and inspections for troubled facilities, the Nursing Home Reform Modernization Act of 2021, was introduced last month.

“This bipartisan legislation will expose nursing homes with a history of poor performance and provide the funding and mandatory enforcement to better protect residents and staff,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo, who has pushed for the changes. Her Bay Area district includes a San Jose-area facility that Solorzano applied to take over and is currently operating.

“The deadly neglect and endangerment at nursing homes must end,” Eshoo said.

Other members of Congress with ReNew-connected facilities in their districts, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Central Valley Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, did not respond to requests for comment.

Serious problems existed at nursing homes connected to ReNew in the years before the coronavirus, but the onset of the global pandemic brought a wave of new concerns. Employees and family members said staff lacked PPE, or didn’t use it consistently. And LAist reporters found that owner Crystal Solorzano submitted an allegedly fraudulent college transcript to the state, and posted misinformation about coronavirus vaccines on social media.

Solorzano declined several interview requests, but in a statement ReNew spokesman Dan Kramer 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.”

After LAist reported that ReNew Health Consulting Services had contributed to Governor Gavin Newsom, his campaign announced it would give the $10,000 political contribution from the company to charity.