TRAVERSE CITY — MediLodge GTC, a Lafranier Road nursing home, agreed to act as a regional hub for the transfer of as many as 26 patients recovering from COVID-19, a Record-Eagle investigation has found.
“MDHHS has established a regional hub strategy to assist in reducing the spread of COVID-19 within congregate care settings,” Lynn Sutfin, spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, said in an email to the Record-Eagle.
“This includes individuals who were already living in skilled nursing facilities who can be moved to these hubs and individuals who no longer require hospital level of care and are discharged to a COVID-19 Regional Hub.”
Two additional downstate Medilodge facilities, The Lodge at Taylor on Northline Road and MediLodge of Frankenmuth on West Genesee Street, also agreed to act as regional hubs, the Record-Eagle has learned.
The three facilities combined made up to 93 beds available for the transfer of COVID-19 positive patients and will receive an incentive payment of about $5,000 per bed, Sutfin said.
Should the company receive the full one-time incentive payment for all 93 available beds, the total would be $465,000, MDHHS figures show.
“This one-time payment will allow facilities to immediately make infrastructure improvements and hire additional staffing, if needed,” Sutfin said.
Patti Bravard, of Central Lake, said she trusted Medilodge GTC to care for her 86-year-old mother. When she heard online rumors the facility was admitting patients recovering from COVID-19, she contacted Administrator Heidi Luepnitz.
“I called on the phone, and twice asked Heidi whether they were bringing in COVID patients,” Bravard said. “And twice I was told it was just in preparation, in case the Governor mandated they take them.”
Luepnitz has referred all questions to MediLodge national spokesperson, Bill Gray.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Gray said the company has a moratorium on interviews but would be releasing a written statement. Thus far, no statement has been provided to the Record-Eagle.
Internal MediLodge documents provided the Record-Eagle show rooms will be cleaned with a 1:9 bleach solution, if EMS or a funeral home is needed they will use the north entrance and be screened appropriately, walkie talkies will be used to communicate between the unit and the rest of the facility and daily logs will be kept.
Luepnitz will monitor the unit via a remote camera “to ensure appropriateness for all policies and procedures,” documents state.
Grand Traverse County Health Officer Wendy Hirschenberger confirmed her office had been notified by a local nursing home about transfers of COVID-19 positive patients.
She declined to name the facility or comment on regional hubs, however.
The regional hubs are part of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Order 2020-50, signed April 15 and aimed at protecting residents and staff in nursing homes. The order requires nursing homes to care for any current residents who test positive for COVID-19, but aren’t sick enough to require hospitalization, in a dedicated area of the facility.
It does not require facilities to volunteer to be a hub, nor to accept transfers of recovering COVID-19 positive patients from hospitals. That decision is voluntary, Sutfin confirmed.
Bravard said she does not understand why family visits are banned, but the facility can bring in patients who are infected with the disease they are trying to prevent.
“It’s like they signed her death warrant,” Bravard said, of the danger of infection she believes her mother now faces. “If it’s safe to bring all those sick patients in, why were they so secretive about it? Why do they need ‘biohazard’ labels for the laundry?”
MediLodge GTC (previously Birchwood) on Lafranier Road is one of 93 MediLodge care facilities in Michigan, according to Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs records.
Health Department and other reports have shown reports of COVID-19 infections at several Medilodge facilities statewide.
The Kalamazoo Health Department reported Monday that 17 residents and 3 employees tested positive for the virus at Medilodge of Kalamazoo.
The Central Michigan District Health Department confirmed a resident of MediLodge of Mt. Pleasant was hospitalized March 31 and died April 1.
A resident of Medilodge of Livingston contracted the disease at the facility, was transferred to an area hospital where she later died, family members told a downstate newspaper.
Alpena Fire Chief Bill Forbush told the Alpena Municipal Council on Monday that five residents and four staff at Medilodge of Alpena had contracted the virus.
On Wednesday, Cathy Goike of District Health Department 4 confirmed 24 new cases in the region, the “majority of which” came from MediLodge of Alpena, though she declined to cite a precise number.
Earlier investigation by the District 4 Health Department, and a public announcement by Alpena Medilodge administrator, George Sobeck, revealed earlier this month, a Medilodge resident at the facility was the first person in the region to die of COVID-19.
Information provided to family members about outbreaks or plans to accept patients recovering from COVID-19 has been fragmented and even misleading, the Record-Eagle found.
In an April 6 statement, Gray told a Record-Eagle reporter there were no COVID-19 positive patients in the facility; April 10 he said in a written statement the facility was making preparations to accept recovering COVID-19 patients from local hospitals.
“Virus Update” notices on websites of the MediLodge locations designated as regional hubs dated March 18, 2020 state, “Our center does NOT CURRENTLY have any active cases of COVID-19, and we are implementing this restriction under the guidance of the CDC, as well as local, state, and federal health officials.”
Those alerts have not been updated to reflect outbreaks or hub status, the Record-Eagle found.
A MediLodge GTC Facebook post dated April 13 stating the facility would not take COVID positive patients has since been removed.
An April 14 post stated, “MediLodge of GTC has complied and is preparing to address the needs of the residents in our local communities, as we would with any request from the Governor’s office. The intent of the request from the State of Michigan to ensure localities are prepared to meet local needs should they arise, which we certainly recognize and support.”
The following week, infectious disease warning signs and bins for full and empty oxygen tanks appeared near the north entrance of the facility.
“I feel lied to,” Bravard said. “In my opinion they are risking the lives of everyone in the nursing home, just to get more money.”
Bravard was unsure of the monthly cost of her mother’s care at MediLodge GTC, but said it is paid for through Medicare, Medicaid, private insurance and social security benefits.
Her mother’s entire monthly benefits go toward her care, Bravard said, with the exception of $87 she uses to pay her private insurance premium and $60 in spending money.
After the approximately $5,000 one time incentive payment per bed, MediLodge will “continue to receive their standard per diem to support the ongoing care of these higher acuity patients,” Sutfin said.
Medicare’s Patient Driven Payment Model, also called a PDPM, for a skilled nursing facility caring for what Sutfin called a “high acuity patient” is $644.73 per day, or $19,986.63 for a 31-day month.
If all 93 MediLodge hub-available beds were filled with high acuity patients, and the company received the maximum Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement, the company’s monthly total for all three facilities could be as high as $1.85 million.
Bravard said she began caring for her mother, who has dementia, in her Central Lake home in 2013.
In 2018, when her mother could no longer walk, became incontinent, and required more care than Bravard could provide, she moved her to MediLodge GTC.
Now, she’s worried her mother may be trapped there.
“I’d like to move her out, but I cannot care for her at home and I have a sneaking suspicion that no other facility will take her now that she’s been at MediLodge.”
Her fears may be warranted.
Christina Wellinger, Administrator of South Torch Assisted Living in Rapid City, said she has available beds but would still not accept a resident from MediLodge GTC.
“I learned the partner of one of our staff works in the kitchen at MediLodge and I laid her off,” Wellinger said. “We don’t know enough about this virus yet and I have to protect the health of my current residents first and foremost.”
Ann McMann, administrator of Boardman Lake Glens senior community in Traverse City also expressed caution.
“Just going off what I’m hearing, I’d have to see a really clean intake, a negative test and a 14-day quarantine first,” she said. “We’d prefer not to take any admissions right now.”
Christopher Friese, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Health Management and Policy School of Public Health is an expert on improving patient health.
He said many nursing homes are not set up to provide the kind of infection control required to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
“They’re used to handling patients for wound care or a GI bug, but to have the degree of respiratory protection you need to fight this virus, they’re not going to have that,” Friese said.
“Do they understand negative pressure — meaning air doesn’t come out of the room it stays in the room? Many nursing homes are not set up for that kind of sophistication.”
Bravard said Thursday she hopes her mother does not contract the disease, and will continue to ask why family members were not informed of MediLodge’s plans.