You were born in Lansing and grew up in Michigan. Tell me how you became interested in health care and nursing homes.
I was 16 years old and in high school and wanted a job. I put my application into a dietary department at a Chelsea retirement community. They hired me in February of ’87. I just absolutely loved my job. I love working with the senior population. I waited tables in their dining rooms, washed dishes and did other jobs through high school until I got a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Eastern Michigan University. I went on to get a master’s in business administration from the University of Phoenix in Southfield. I was interested in going into politics. But I ultimately decided I wanted to chase my passion and work with seniors. I got my nursing home administrators license. Over the years I’ve worked at several long-term care companies in different states. But my heart and family were in Michigan, so I came back in 2012 and with some partners we started the WellBridge Group.
Tell me about WellBridge.
We opened our first WellBridge home in the spring of 2012, an 88-bed facility in Brighton. We have opened seven more new state-of-the-art nursing homes. In 2014, we had an opportunity to merge with NextCare Health Systems and their 17 facilities. The next year we were a company of 25 homes in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. We added another to make 26 in 2019. It’s been a great journey. We have a great team of people. Our dream was to create a new model of senior care where we predominately have private rooms. Many older facilities have semi-private and some still have three or four bed wards. All our WellBridge facilities have bathrooms and showers. We have integrated spa salons, massage rooms, which unfortunately haven’t been used lately. We were on a steady growth path until last year when COVID hit.
WellBridge is highly rated by Medicare’s Nursing Home Compare website. Six of eight homes sport 5-star quality ratings, the seventh is 4 stars and the eighth is too new to be rated. Tell me about it.
New facilities have much better designs and infrastructure. It creates efficiencies for staff and you see higher levels of customer satisfaction when people are able to have their own rooms and other amenities the older facilities don’t have. We integrated some of our best concepts from the new homes into some of the more aged facilities. Our 18 NextCare homes have improved from an average rating of 3.6 in 2014 to 4.2. I’m very proud of our star ratings. Our average throughout the 26 facilities at the end of 2020 was 4.5 stars out of five. (Note: The overall average for Michigan’s 455 nursing homes is 3.0, with only 36 facilities with 5-star ratings, according to Caregiverlist.)
How did COVID-19 change your business?
Dramatic changes. First, our occupancy levels tanked. Before, we were close to 90 percent occupancy, well above state average. Now we’re down to 68 percent occupancy, and our revenues are significantly off. The stimulus money is helpful. But we can’t continue to operate with our fixed costs and labor costs going up. We’ve had people exit the industry and that has been challenging. A national poll of homes showed 40 percent of operators are going to have trouble with cash. I haven’t heard anybody in Michigan thinking about closing, but it is tough sledding now.
How has the pandemic affected residents and staff?
We locked down visitation in March. Our residents have been essentially confined to their rooms. We loosened up a little during the summer for communal dining. However, when you get positive cases, you have to shut it down. I’m so extremely proud of our team. We pulled together. The guidance from CDC (Centers for Disease Control) was changing day by day, moment by moment, and we kept everybody tuned to that. We jumped in and procured $1 million of PPE in our warehouse for strategic reserves. But the worst day toward the end of April, we hit 500 positive cases with residents and staff. We have 2,000 beds and roughly 2,500 employees. The numbers leveled off over the summer, then started to peak up late October. We had days during the summer when we had maybe 10 positive cases, mostly staff. By the end of November we were up to 217 cases between residents and staff. Now we are about 100. Sadly, we lost about 100 of our residents and two staff members. At the end of the year we had a virtual meeting with all our staff. We had a moment of silence for all we lost, certainly in our state and our nation, and frankly, the world.
Everyone went through a lot. Do you blame anyone?
I’ve never been a big fan of the blame game. Politically, there’s too much of that going on. There should be more dialogue. My feeling is let’s work together. Of course there are things I wish we all had done differently. The world wasn’t prepared for this. Maybe more warning, more communication, more coordination. The policymakers, I wish they would do more for our industry. We take care of seniors, our moms and dads. They are us. We’ve always had the lowest rates, and we are asked to do a lot with very little reimbursement. We’re hoping they won’t forget everything we and our residents have faced and help us prepare for the next one.
Any final thoughts?
I just want to thank all of the caregivers in all the facilities in our company and in the state. Nurses, housekeepers and other front-line workers did the best job they could. I’ve seen firsthand what they’re doing behind the scenes. I’d also like to thank the public. I know families, residents and everyone, they are frustrated. It’s been difficult for all. We are hoping for a better fall and by 2022 getting back to normal.