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Barbara Macias walks her father and daughter toward the gravesite of Jaqueline Macias, who died under the care of Santa Fe Heights, a ReNew Facility.
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Health
5 Takeaways From Our Investigation Into A Troubled Nursing Home Chain And California's Flawed System Of Regulation
Advocates for better oversight of California's nursing homes call the current licensing process 'completely exploited.'
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Last spring, as the pandemic ravaged California's nursing homes, we received an email from a woman whose mother lived in a Los Angeles facility. It was urgent. Coronavirus had been spreading, yet she said the nursing home, Beverly West, delayed testing residents.

She and others with family in the facility told us that management had changed. The nursing home was sold and a company called ReNew Health was now involved. The story we published last year didn't mention ReNew — it was difficult to track down information about the company.

But we didn't stop reporting. Today, following a months-long investigation, LAist can report that ReNew is connected to at least 26 nursing homes across California, as owner, operator, management or in administration. Last year, state health officials took the extraordinary step of denying ReNew's founder and CEO, Crystal Solorzano, licenses to operate nine nursing homes. Officials cited a lengthy list of serious violations at her facilities, and even concerns about Solorzano's character. But due to what advocates call a "completely exploited" licensing process, ReNew Health is still operating those nursing homes.

Our investigation draws on state records, court filings, government databases and dozens of interviews. You can read the full story here; below are key takeaways from our reporting.

ReNew Nursing Homes Have A Track Record Of Substandard Care

When Cynthia Carrillo visited her brother at Villa Mesa Care Center last year, she said she saw staff walking around without masks. Ten days later, her brother David was hospitalized. He died of COVID-19 in April 2020, and Carrillo filed a wrongful death lawsuit late last year.

Across 26 facilities connected to ReNew, federal data shows that nearly 200 people have died from COVID-19, and more than 1,300 have been infected. But trouble existed at ReNew facilities long before the pandemic hit.

Over a three-year period beginning in February 2017, regulators documented 128 federal violations at Solorzano's nursing homes — including 14 in the most severe category of "Immediate Jeopardy." That's when the government determines a situation is so dire that it "caused or is likely to cause serious injury, harm, impairment, or a death to a resident."

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At one home, a nursing assistant was charged with raping a disabled patient. At another facility, a patient was inappropriately discharged and went missing for two weeks. He was found by paramedics on the ground in a park, under his wheelchair, unconscious.

State regulators also tallied another 51 violations at Solorzano's nursing homes. UC San Francisco professor Charlene Harrington, who studies the nursing home industry, called those numbers alarming. "That's way off the curve," she says. "That's as bad as you could get."

California Allows Operators It Has Deemed Unfit To Stay In Business

In 2019, ReNew CEO Crystal Solorzano applied to take over nine nursing homes. Last April, the state denied her the licenses, citing her facilities' track record of harming patients. The California Department of Public Health also charged that Solorzano submitted a fraudulent college transcript when she applied to be a nursing home administrator in 2008.

But the department's denials aren't the final word. Solorzano has appealed those decisions. In the meantime, she continues to run those nine nursing homes.

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"'No' is not 'no,'" says Jerry Seelig, an industry expert who has served as a state-appointed temporary manager of troubled nursing homes. "It's a very ineffectual, at times, and slow process to finally get to 'no.'"

How is that possible?

In California, a nursing home operator can take over a facility first, and then apply for a license through the California Department of Public Health. State health officials say that during this process, a valid license does exist — that of the previous owner. Patient advocates call this practice "squatting," and want to ban the use of "borrowing" licenses.

"If you're a bad provider in California, you can get in the building, you can be a squatter, and they can't get you out," says Tony Chicotel, an attorney with the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform.

ReNew's CEO Shared Anti-Vax Information

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In December, as coronavirus vaccines began to reach Americans, Solorzano took to Instagram, using her platform to spread misinformation about the life-saving vaccines to her 11,000 followers.

One misleading meme she shared was about Thalidomide, a drug from the 1950s that caused birth defects. The Associated Press deemed comparisons between COVID vaccines and Thalidomide false and misleading.

Solorzano also shared a post that falsely claimed that the COVID vaccine changes human DNA — a falsehood repeatedly debunked by medical experts.

A third post, which Solorzano shared from an anti-vaccine account she followed, said in its description: "the COVID vaccine should be avoided at all costs."

Solorzano's social media misinformation stunned Dr. Michael Wasserman, a physician and nursing home industry insider who is part of California's Vaccine Advisory Committee: "It's unconscionable that someone who is in a leadership position in a nursing home, or a nursing home chain, would do this."

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Crystal Solorzano Declined An Interview, But Provided A Statement

LAist reached out repeatedly to Crystal Solorzano and ReNew Health requesting an interview. They declined. In response to a detailed description of our reporting, a ReNew spokesperson provided a statement that says "Ms. Solorzano is fully qualified to own and operate nursing homes, and in fact has specialized in acquiring troubled facilities and turning them around to preserve and maintain critical bed space that would have otherwise been unavailable during the pandemic."

The statement doesn't address her posts on social media or her fraudulent transcript.

In response to the deaths and infections at her nursing homes, the statement also says: "Yes, we have facilities in some of the hardest hit regions of California. All our facilities continue to follow infection prevention protocols to protect the health and wellbeing of the residents and staff."

You can read the entire letter here.

Reform Is On The Agenda In Sacramento

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The California Department of Public Health, which oversees nursing homes, also declined an interview request, but sent an email. "All [nursing homes] undergoing a change of ownership already have a valid existing license," the email said. During that process, those licenses belong to the previous owner, not the current operator.

The practice of new owners taking over operations at a nursing home before securing a license — what advocates call "squatting" — could soon become illegal. AB 1502, a bill introduced in February by Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi of Torrance, would ban a new operator from using another's license during the application period.

"For these bad actors to be able to continue to operate without a license, and with a record of past abuses is simply not acceptable," Muratsuchi said. "The current system is broken. And we need to fix it." He singled out Crystal Solorzano and ReNew, along with companies connected to nursing home mogul Shlomo Rechnitz, in an interview with LAist.

Any reform effort would likely face stiff opposition from the nursing home industry. The bill was introduced as part of a suite of reform legislation in 2021, seeking to address problems in the nursing home industry that gained renewed attention during the pandemic. Yet shortly after a March press conference announcing the bill, a key legislator's office and the industry group California Association of Health Facilities told LAist it had been tabled until 2022.

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