Cash-Strapped Connecticut Nursing Homes May Miss Sprinkler Deadline

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) -- Dozens of financially struggling nursing homes will likely miss a July 1 deadline to meet the requirements of the state's sprinkler system law, government officials and nursing home owners said.

Following a deadly Hartford fire that left 16 Greenwood Health Center residents dead in 2003, the General Assembly passed a law requiring all state nursing homes to install sprinklers throughout their facilities.

The nursing homes, many of which are operating with severe budget deficits, say they cannot install costly sprinkler systems by the deadline without financial help from the state.

``Most of these facilities just simply don't have a quarter of a million dollars on hand to do the renovations, as laudable as that may be,'' said Toni Fatone, executive vice president of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities.

According to a report compiled by the Department of Social Services and other state agencies, 37 nursing homes have partial sprinkler systems and 12 have none at all. One of the homes listed as having none is Park Place in Hartford, the former Greenwood facility, although the nursing home's new owners began installing sprinklers last year.

The problem has prompted one lawmaker to consider extending the deadline to give the state and the homes a way to work out a funding plan. State Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, is proposing legislation that would delay the installation deadline by one year.

Aside from paying for sprinklers, homes are worried about hidden costs such as the expense of having to remove any asbestos that is found during installation. Residents would have to be relocated if asbestos had to be removed, and it is unclear where they would go. If homes are forced to pick up too much of the bill, it could drive them out of business, Duff said.

``So many of these nursing homes are on such a cliff, if we don't answer all these questions we could push them over the edge,'' he said.

Officials estimate the total cost of installing or updating sprinkler systems for the homes would be $14.6 million, according to the DSS report. The average cost per home for updating would be $270,000, while full installation would likely cost $363,000 per home.

DSS officials have examined several options to pay for the sprinklers. State grants would likely leave the state to pick up the entire tab. The federal Medicaid program helps pay for facility upgrades, but homes would need to obtain a private loan first and then wait for Medicaid reimbursements.

``When your cash flow is so tight, you, like a normal homeowner, are not eligible for a loan,'' Fatone said.

DSS has recommended another option, which Duff has included in his bill. The Connecticut Health and Educational Facilities Authority could issue revenue bonds, and the nursing homes could apply for loans. The state could then recoup the Medicaid funding to pay CHEFA back for the loans. The homes would be responsible for paying any costs Medicaid did not cover.

Michael Starkowski, a DSS deputy commissioner, said the homes could include the cost of removing asbestos or other extra expenses in the loans.

Homes are also concerned about speeding through the installation process before June. With few companies in Connecticut available to do the work and lengthy local permit processes to wind through, homes say there is not enough time.

Others are ready. Grove Manor Nursing Home Inc. in Waterbury had its plans drawn up and approved by the fire marshal last year. Work on the 60-bed facility, which has no sprinklers, is expected to cost about $110,000, but the home cannot afford to pay for it without state help, said Janet Aliciene, the home's administrator and owner.

``We're all ready to go. We're just waiting for the state to forward the money to us,'' she said.

Rep. Stephen Dargan, co-chairman of the legislature's Public Safety and Security Committee, said he plans to meet with state budget officials, home owners and agency officials to discuss the problem. He said he is hesitant about extending the deadline because of the tragedy at Greenwood.

``I really would not like to see this delayed, because God forbid there's another fire and there's another loss of life,'' said Dargan, D-West Hartford. He added, ``If we don't have a safe facility, I don't care how much money it costs to retrofit these facilities, we need to do it.''

Kenneth Hugo, administrator of the Notre Dame Convalescent Home in Norwalk, said that keeping the June 2005 deadline just won't work. While his plans for upgrading his partial sprinkler system have been drafted and approved by the local fire marshal, he's also in a holding pattern as he waits for a funding decision from the state.

``It would make it totally impossible to comply,'' he said. ``It's safe to say for other facilities, it would be equally impossible.''