Closing of troubled nursing home shakes small community to its core

This article is the product of a collaboration between Georgia Health News and the UGA Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, a partnership made possible by the Ford Foundation and Grady College. More articles on health care in rural Georgia will follow this one in Georgia Health News.

The nursing home had closed and all its beds were empty, yet its parking lot was jammed with cars one afternoon last week.

Former employees of Abbeville Healthcare and Rehab were arriving one last time — to pick up their final paychecks. They were also bringing food and beverages to hold a farewell party  in the facility’s cafeteria.

Connie Lockerby picks up her paycheck.
Connie Lockerby picks up check. (Photos by Elizabeth Fite)

The last of approximately 90 patients had been transferred elsewhere the week before, and once the final resident left, the nursing home closed. More than 100 employees lost their jobs. The ripple effects of the closing will hurt businesses in Abbeville, a town with a population of about 2,900 in Wilcox County, in South Central Georgia.

The transfers of patients took an emotional toll as well, not only on the patients themselves, but on the staffers who cared for them and the family members whose loved ones have been moved.

Many of the patients had complex needs, including behavioral issues, the former staff members told GHN.

The Abbeville nursing home is now the fourth Georgia facility operated by Tennessee-based New Beginnings Care to close, after federal health officials, citing potential harm to patients, stopped Medicare and Medicaid payments to the facilities.

Despite the nursing home’s troubles, the former employees insisted they had done their best to care for the patients.

“People wanted to work here,” said Connie Lockerby, who worked in patient records. “We treated the residents well. I promise you we gave good care.” But she said the nursing home often ran short of non-medical supplies, such as beds and wheelchairs, and some needed repairs were not completed promptly. Supply orders were held up at the administrative level, Lockerby told GHN.

Bennie Howard, housekeeping supervisor for the nursing home, said employees volunteered to repair the tile flooring and paint the rooms themselves when it became clear that the facility was in jeopardy.

“People came in on their own time’’ to help fix up the home, nurse Heather Davenport said. “This is a family.”

A sign in Abbeville.
A sign in Abbeville reflects the town’s hopes.

Davenport said she won’t be paid for 20 hours of overtime that she worked, while several other employees said they’d had a paycheck bounce in the past months. The closing “wasn’t our fault or the residents’ fault,’’ said Howard, who lives in nearby Rochelle and is looking for a job.

A company in crisis

GHN attempted to interview officials at New Beginnings Care, but a woman answering the phone at the company’s Hixson, Tenn., headquarters declined comment Monday. She did not identify herself.

New Beginnings, which operates five other nursing homes in Georgia, is under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The Abbeville nursing home closed in mid-March.
The Abbeville nursing home closed in mid-March.

Last August, a federal inspection of the Abbeville nursing home found 13 deficiencies, with seven labeled “environmental’’ and three “administration,’’ including a failure to “set up a group that is legally responsible for writing and setting up policies for leading and running the nursing home; or hire a properly licensed administrator.”

The facility was rated one star (out of a possible five) on Nursing Home Compare, a website run by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The other New Beginnings nursing homes that have been shut down in Georgia are in Macon; Jeffersonville, near Macon; and Rockmart, south of Rome.

Government officials have indicated they had no choice but to take action. The closings of New Beginnings Care nursing homes come from “ongoing failure to address continuing deficiencies within the facilities,” Jeremy Arieh, a Community Health spokesman, said recently.

A number of lives disrupted

For many of the residents, the move to other nursing homes was difficult, the staff members said. “They had been here for years,’’ said Gordon Sterner, a dietary manager.

MIchelle Cook
Michelle Cook

The closing hit Michelle Cook and her mother hard. Cook, who works at a pharmacy in town, said her mother, Elena, was a resident of Abbeville Healthcare and Rehab for about nine years.

Elena, 70, was upset about being moved to another nursing home about a dozen miles away, Cook said. “I’ve been a mess, too.”

“She liked it there,” Cook said. “She misses her friends and the employees.”

Abbeville Mayor Michael Estes said the nursing home closing “hurts the town and hurts the people who were in there. Some had been there for 35 or 40 years.”

He added that “several were crying and upset” when they had to leave.

Estes said he tried to talk to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to keep the facility open as repairs were being made, but his pleas got nowhere.

He said the nursing home had been Abbeville’s second-biggest employer, behind Wilcox State Prison, also in town.

Down Main Street at the Dollar General, store manager Queen Cook said the nursing home employees were frequent customers. The closing, she said, “is going to hurt.” The owner of Vera’s, a restaurant in town, said she also expects a drop in business. “I have a lot of customers at that nursing home,’’ said Vera Gibson.

Mayor Estes
Mayor Michael Estes

Former records worker Lockerby, who’s 64 and lives in nearby Eastman, has decided to retire. Other former employees say they have lined up jobs elsewhere, in some cases at nursing homes in other cities.

And there are many still looking for work. Debbie Perez, a certified nursing assistant, said she hopes another company buys the Abbeville facility and reopens it. The closing, she said, “had nothing to do with the care.”

Elizabeth Fite graduated from Auburn University in 2012 with bachelor’s degrees in journalism and English literature, and she is currently pursing a master’s degree in health and medical journalism from the University of Georgia. Formerly, she was a reporter for the Auburn Plainsman in Auburn, and the Aiken Standard in Aiken, S.C.