By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – In 1901, the Hebrew Ladies’ Sick Benefit Association first started collecting nickels to help the elderly indigent of Hartford. “The Handkerchief Brigade,” as those early fund-raisers were dubbed, would go door to door until they had enough money to build the Hebrew Ladies’ Old People’s Home on Wooster Street, the first of its kind in Connecticut. The institution would relocate twice – to Washington Street and Tower Avenue – before moving to its current location on Abrahms Boulevard in West Hartford in 1989.
What evolved into Hebrew HealthCare (HHC) would become a nationally recognized non-profit comprehensive geriatric healthcare provider over the next two decades. But with Medicaid reimbursement rates diminishing over time, especially in recent years, the nursing-home component of the not-for-profit HHC began to lose money at an accelerating pace.
In December, the nursing home was sold to National Health Care Associates (NHCA), a move that frees up HHC to focus on the other aspects of its non-profit work.
“It’s increasingly difficult for stand-alone nursing homes, particularly not-for-profit ones, to survive nowadays,” says interim president and CEO Gary Jones. “But one of the things the board decided was that it wasn’t fair to continue to ask the community to support something that couldn’t be sustained without huge sums of money on an annual basis. It became clear that that was not the right thing for the community. That is why we began to look for the kind of buyer for our nursing home who cared about our tradition, who cared about the people we serve, and who cared about making sure that the nursing home would continue to be a Jewish institution.”
HHC filed for bankruptcy on Aug. 15, the same day that Jones began his tenure and when a modern-day “Handkerchief Brigade” stepped up to help HHC through its reorganization process.
“The first day I came into the office, we had a meeting with our financial advisor and others, who advised us that we had to raise $500,000 in debtor-in-possession financing in a very short period of time or we would have trouble meeting payroll,” says Jones. “With lead commitments from Henry N. Zachs, Jeffrey Hoffman, and the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford, we were able to raise the necessary financing. Because of the people who rallied together very quickly to provide that financing for us, we were able to make it to where we are today.”
Then, as the sale of the nursing home in the bankruptcy process took longer than expected, HHC leaders had to secure an additional $250,000 in financing. Again, the existing lenders and four additional HHC board members came forward to provide the required debtor-in-possession financing.
“That was a really big effort on the part of a lot of people in our community and we’re really grateful that they recognized the need to help and that they have confidence in our future,” Jones says. “It’s a very important team effort; it shows what community can do when it works together in support of a community institution.”
Once HHC went into bankruptcy, a bid process was ordered and a Chicago-based broker was hired to reach out to potential buyers who would assure HHC’s creditors maximum value for the sale. NHCA and its affiliate, Hebrew Center for Health & Rehabilitation, LLC, submitted the only qualified bid within the allocated timeframe authorized by the court. As a result, Hebrew Center for Health & Rehabilitation was approved as the designated purchaser of the nursing home and property on Abrahms Boulevard. The purchase was finalized on Dec. 21.
Founded in 1984 by Marvin J. Ostreicher, National HealthCare Associates has grown into a network of 40 skilled-nursing and rehabilitation centers and assisted-living centers located throughout Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont. NHCA manages the care of nearly 5,500 patients and residents and employs more than 9,000 professional caregivers and related staff. With several of its facilities named among the “Best Nursing Homes” by U.S. News & World Report in 2014 and 2015, the company specializes in offering extensive programs for short-term rehabilitation and post-hospital care in areas including orthopedic, cardiovascular, neurological, and post-surgical recovery and rehabilitation.
The HHC board saw Ostreicher, a Modern Orthodox Jew, as an ideal buyer for one of Greater Hartford’s most rooted Jewish institutions.
“Our plan was that, if we were going to spin off our nursing home, it was going to be fundamentally important that we do so to an institution that would be committed to continuing the Jewish character of the Hebrew Home,” says Jones. “Marvin Ostreicher is someone who really gets the importance of the mission and the relationship to the community. We felt very good from Day One that this would be somebody who would honor that tradition. Marvin has agreed to employ all the people associated with our skilled-nursing facility. That agreement is another indication of his respect for what has been built here and his desire to keep things intact even after he purchases the facility.”
Hebrew HealthCare’s nursing home is the 14th Connecticut facility to be acquired by NHCA. “Our plan was to find a buyer like Marvin – a large-scale nursing-home operator who has all kinds of back-office support for all the company’s nursing homes so that NHCA can make our nursing home work in the context of a tradition that we care about,” Jones says. “And HHC would take the burden of supporting the nursing home off the community, while continuing to do the other aspects of our not-for-profit work in support of the geriatric population.”
While HHC hands over operation of its 257-bed skilled-nursing facility, the restructuring under Chapter 11 protection will allow the organization to carry on the other aspects of its not-for-profit work. HHC will continue to own and run its hospital, which comprises a medical unit for geriatric patients and a behavioral-health unit, as well as its adult day center and the Hoffman SummerWood assisted-living community. “We will also be able to focus more time and attention on our dementia services and provide dementia-related instruction and education in the community,” Jones says. In addition, HHC’s hospital-based physician practice may further expand its services beyond the facility walls.
Ostreicher hopes to integrate Hebrew Center for Health & Rehabilitation further into the community by providing meeting space for local organizations and offering Jewish-themed cultural activities to residents. “We always look to serve the community that we’re in, based on what the needs of that community are,” he says. “Because the facility is situated in West Hartford and has always had the affiliation with the Jewish community, our feeling is that West Hartford would want and would be well-served by a Jewish facility.”
The purchase agreement will maintain the facility’s current kashrut standards, certified by the Hartford Kashrut Commission, and supervised by Rabbi Daniel Braune-Friedman, director of Pastoral Care.
After acquiring the nursing home from Hebrew HealthCare, NHCA plans to spend a year renovating the building. There will also be a focus on expanding the existing medical services. “The severity of the patients’ conditions is more severe than what the facility is currently providing for,” Ostreicher says. “We would like to be able to provide more acute services and heavier medical services than currently offered, as many of our other facilities do.”
From his 30-year perspective as director of a healthcare enterprise, Ostreicher has seen many prototypes and approaches to senior care.
“As the Baby Boomers – of which I am one – are aging, their demands are going to be much greater than those of the previous generation,” he says. “There’s always going to have to be a balance between what we would love to provide and what is affordable to provide. There are a lot of models for senior care. I think the main thing is to make people feel comfortable, make them feel at home, and to provide a strong customer-service base.”
For Ostreicher, who graduated in 1972 from Yeshiva University with a pre-med degree, the work of NHCA is more than a vocation. “It’s a calling, not only for the geriatric population but for the people in need of rehab generally,” he says. “I get great satisfaction in providing care for the residents and services and in doing it well. We’re not just dealing with the condition of the individual person; we affect the person as a whole, we affect their family, and if we can make that transition a happier one and people appreciate it, it’s tremendously satisfying.”