"The residents are being used as pawns," said Chip Sharpe, who sided with the North Coast People's Alliance and others that blame the facilities' operator, Rockport Healthcare Services, and the owner of the company that manages the facilities, Brius Healthcare, for the closure. "I have a close friend who is in Fortuna Rehabilitation and Wellness. The residents are frightened and unsure what will will happen."
Sharpe joined around 12 people holding signs with slogans such as "Shame on Shlomo." Shlomo Rechnitz is a Los Angeles-based billionaire and CEO of Brius Healthcare. Annually, he pays around $4.6 million dollars in revenue from his five facilities in Humboldt County back into companies affiliated or owned by him
. Members of the North Coast People's Alliance, formerly Northern Humboldt for Bernie [Sanders], maintain that Rechnitz should put some of this money back into his Humboldt facilities to address an alleged $5 million deficit Rockport has blamed on the cost of recruiting staff from out of the area.
But it's not that simple, claims Rockport, who called for the original protest, contacting family members of all the patients on Tuesday afternoon and encouraging them to show up. Around 20 employees of the company, including management, nurses and skilled nursing staff, took up the northern part of the sidewalk. In a statement emailed out the day before, the company said "nursing home workers, patients and families .... protest Partnership HealthPlan’s decision to stand by and let three Humboldt County nursing homes close, even as it sits on $300 million in profit that is mandated to go towards emergency situations like the one in Eureka."
Partnership HealthPlan is the MediCal provider for Humboldt County. Rockport and Brius have maintained that the company does not reimburse them sufficiently to pay for staffing. On Oct. 7, the company sent a letter to Liz Gibboney, Partnership's CEO, stating that "the one entity that has the resources to save our jobs and keep patients in their homes is you." The letter was signed by 120 staff members.
In reply, Gibboney penned a letter to Rockport staff, and another to family members and patients. Those letters imply Rockport's figures are a misstatement, adding that partnership granted $2.2 million more than what was required by the state in the past two fiscal years.
While on paper the rhetoric has been fiery (In a press release, Senator Mike McGuire referred to the day's events as a "so-called protest", the Alliance called it an "astro turf protest"), discourse at the actual event was largely civil. The respective sides jockeyed for position on the sidewalk, with some of the Rockport protesters moving south to put their signs at the forefront of oncoming traffic. Allen McCloskey, an Alliance organizer, called the Eureka Police Department early on in the day to complain about Rockport blocking the sidewalk, but EPD Capt. Steven Watson declined to intervene, instead asking both sides to remain peaceful. Commuters waiting for the bus took advantage of the free coffee and snacks in Rockport's booth, and accepted flyers and information from both sides. Drivers honked their approval, although it was difficult to tell what message they took from array of signs, or if they knew the difference between the two groups of people.
A heated conversation broke out at one point between Austin Allison, a Eureka city council candidate, and Rockport Vice President of Operations, Amad Nazifi. Nazifi invited Allison and McCloskey to come look at the books, claiming that the $180 per patient per day Partnership was paying was insufficient to cover costs. Data gathered by Assemblymember Jim Wood's office show the reimbursement rates from Partnership actually standing at between $185 and $203 per day, with an additional 2 percent increase available once quality of care measures are met. Partnership has also stated that the "extra money" they are said to have are reserves mandated by the state.
When asked for a bottom-line figure on what it would take to keep the facilities solvent, Nazifi estimated between $216 to $220 per patient per day. It does not appear that Partnership is going to blink, however.
"They are no longer negotiating," said Nazifi, "We want to force them to talk to us."
In the meantime, patients and families wait in an atmosphere of uncertainty. Among the protesters was an 85-year-old woman who declined to have her name published. She was worried, she said, about her son, a veteran with diabetes who has been in and out of the facilities. She couldn't care for him at home, she said, but there was no place for him to go.
Still, there is some hope. Her son is among the patients who attended a meeting with Rockport CEO Vincent Hambright in September
, loudly contradicting Hambright's claim that the facilities were not understaffed. The bandages on his legs had not been changed, he insisted, because there was no wound care nurse on staff.
At the time it didn't look as though the man would walk again. At one point the doctor had recommended amputation due to his diabetes complications. But last week his mother watched him take his first steps in months just as she had when he was a wobbly-kneed toddler.
"I don't want him to have to go to Redding or far away," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "He wants to be near his mother."
Two large and loud groups of protesters filled the sidewalk in front of Partnership Healthcare Plan's regional office on Eureka's Fifth Street this afternoon. Both sides want the same thing: for the three skilled nursing homes slated to close and displace vulnerable North Coast seniors to stay open. The point of contention was why, exactly, the homes might close.