South Pasadena convalescent facility turns over a new leaf with the help of new owners, a new name and one determined cop

Having to put a loved one into a nursing home is never a joyous occasion. The only thing worse would be to learn that the nursing facility you have chosen has been actively recruiting violent felons and people with mental or substance abuse issues, which that facility is neither licensed for nor equipped to handle.

Such was the story at South Pasadena Convalescent Center, a 156 bed facility located at 902 Mission St., which in an eight year period, 2007 through 2015, clocked over 1100 calls to the South Pasadena Police Department.

At the time, the facility was owned by Shlomo Rechnitz of Brius Healthcare Services, who since 2006 began acquiring a total of 81 nursing homes throughout California.

Bruis’ first facility to be decertified was Gridley Healthcare & Wellness Center in Gridley in April 2014, after a routine recertification survey turned into a six-day endeavor, yielding a 100-page report detailng a patient who suffered severe dehydration and died after staff failed for four days to take note that his vital signs were fluctuating, and another with a history of heart problems who waited nine hours for staff to call an ambulance for a 12.5 level of pain (on a 1-10 scale). This decertification was followed by the closure of Wish-I-Ah Healthcare & Wellness Centre near Auberry in November 2014.

“The South Pasadena Police Department was averaging 60 visits a month to the South Pasadena Convalescent Center for incidents ranging from someone with a gun in their wheelchair to a patient smoking methamphetamine in the bathroom. It was a mess,” recalls South Pasadena Police Chief Arthur Miller. “So I met with the ombudsman’s office and eventually got the Health Department, and state and federal governments involved.”

Miller tried to educate the facility staff on how best to handle certain situations.

“It soon became apparent that no one there really cared about the patients,” states Miller. It was discovered in 2012 that their solution to police instruction that the 911 calls from the facility pay-phone diminish, was to reroute the calls back to their own front desk. Miller then implemented daily police walk-throughs of the facility so that the patients would have the opportunity to speak to the officers.

But it was not until Courtney Cargill, a 57-year-old former court reporter who suffered from mental illness, walked out of the South Pasadena facility on Nov. 7, 2014, purchased a gallon of gasoline and lit herself on fire, that the severity of the situation could no longer be ignored. Cargill had been admitted to the South Pasadena Convalescent Center on three separate occasions: in November 2013, December 2013 and February 2014, with diagnoses on each admission of schizophrenia, psychosis and anxiety disorder.

As Miller told the Pasadena Weekly, “After Courtney Cargill’s death, I did a presentation before the Elder Death Review Panel, which resulted with the Attorney General’s Office agreeing to review the case.”

In January 2015, the facility’s license was revoked, and by April all of their Medicare and Medi-Cal patients had been relocated. The wrongful death lawsuit against Rechnitz, Brius and its subsidiaries was filed on Aug. 12, 2015 and settled in 2016.

“It is very rare that a facility gets decertified and the residents are displaced. This was a uniquely troubled facility,” says Molly Davies, vice president of WISE & Healthy Aging, an organization that provides elder abuse prevention and ombudsman services. “I have a great deal of respect for Police Chief Miller’s commitment to make sure that the patients would be safe.”

In June 2015 the facility was purchased by Elliot Zemel and Yudi Schmukler, who own four other nursing facilities in the Los Angeles area, and renamed South Pasadena Care Center. Under the new ownership, the facility still failed to get new certification.

In March 2016, Tucker Brugh, with a 30-year background in psychology, clinical and administration, took over as administrator to the nine-patient, 15-employee facility. His first order of business was to discharge the director of nursing. He then faced a 200-page “2567-Statement of Deficiencies” and instructions to fix anything he needed to fix, to make sure there were no deficiencies. South Pasadena Care Center was certified in September. Brugh estimates the costs were between $2 million and $3 million.

“When we took over it was important for us to re-establish ties with the community. To show them that each resident we accept will be treated with the utmost respect and dignity,” shares current owner, Elliot Zemel. “We really felt welcomed by South Pasadena, and particularly by Chief Art Miller of SPPD.”

Currently, South Pasadena Care Center has 80 residents and almost 60 employees. I took a late afternoon tour and the place appeared clean and quiet. There is a Wanderguard system in place and the patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia wear corresponding wristbands.

When asked about the former reputation of the nursing facility, Brugh was diplomatic.

“There is a huge pressure on an administrator to fill beds and make money,” he said. “That pressure may not necessarily have come from the owner himself, but most likely from a regional administrator. It is that pressure that can sometimes drive people to do questionable things.”

He then opened drawers full of applications for admission that he has rejected because to accept them would not be conducive to the environment that he is trying to create for his residents.   

What took place at SPCC is only one occurrence of many that continue to take place across the country. There is a renewed purpose to ensure the care of skilled nursing patients, as is explained by registered nurse Cecilia Cayton, service line manager at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital.

“Skilled nursing facilities are not just a place where we hand off our patients and expect them to do a good job on their own,” says Cayton. “We visit our patients in the facilities to follow up on their progress and to assist with coordinating their care. We also have plans to provide training and education on topics that may be new to their staff. Our objective is to support them in providing better care in meeting our patient needs.”

As for the Attorney General’s investigation into the Cargill death, “It took a long time for them to come to the conclusion that this was not a prosecutable case. I have accepted that,” said Miller, who speaks quite highly of Brugh.

Brugh urges the Police Department and community at large, “Come by anytime you want. If I can’t be transparent, I’m not doing the right thing.”

All good then, right? Not completely. Apparently, former owner Shlomo Rechnitz, per a document issued by the Department of Public Health Licensing and Certification dated Sept. 29 is still listed as an officer of the South Pasadena facility. According to Ombudsman Molly Davies, “The place has made much progress, but we are continuing to keep an eye on it because of the ties to its former owner.”