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Elected officials call for action on Benjamin Healthcare Center

Avery Bleichfeld
Elected officials call for action on Benjamin Healthcare Center
Former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson addresses reporters at a press conference calling for receivership and an investigation of leadership at the Edgar P. Benjamin Healthcare Center in Mission Hill on March 15. She joined (left to right) state Sen. Liz Miranda, City Council President Ruthzee Louijeune, Edgar Benjamin nurse Leslie Henderson and City Councilors Benjamin Weber, Henry Santana and Julia Mejia. BANNER PHOTO

State and city elected officials gathered outside the Edgar P. Benjamin Healthcare Center in Mission Hill last Friday to call for the state to take over the facility and launch an investigation of its leadership.

The press conference came about a month after Tony Francis, president and CEO of the center, officially submitted his intent to close the facility to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

The closure of the nearly 100-year-old nursing home would require the relocation of almost 80 residents — largely from Black and brown communities — and put about 100 employees out of work.

Officially due to “insurmountable” financial difficulties, the pending closure has raised concerns among community members and elected officials, who have alleged financial mismanagement as top salaries at the facility have risen even as staff paychecks have bounced and bills have gone unpaid.

“Our community deserves more, and quite frankly, we’re sick of the disturbing pattern of health care administrators in our community taking advantage for their own personal gain,” said state Sen. Liz Miranda.

Sen. Liz Miranda speaks at a press conference outside the Edgar P. Benjamin Healthcare Center. Miranda and other elected officials called for receivership of the center. BANNER PHOTO

At the March 15 press conference, Miranda said that residents and family members had filed a petition with the Department of Public Health and the attorney general’s office seeking receivership. She said that request, as well as a follow-up query, has so far received little response.

The requested receiver would assess the feasibility of keeping the facility open, find a new long-term care provider to support continued operations and to closely monitor the closure process, if it moves forward, to make sure residents are safe and supported.

“That petition and our follow-up request have fallen on deaf ears,” she said in remarks.

Under state law, either the Department of Public Health or the attorney general’s office can push for receivership.

At the press conference, Miranda said the Department of Public Health said it didn’t have enough documented evidence of impacts to residents’ health to force a change in leadership. In an email to the Banner, the attorney general’s office declined to discuss receivership, citing considerations of legal strategy it cannot share publicly.

In addition to the receivership, Miranda called for immediate action from the state to investigate the claims of mismanagement. She said her understanding is that no one from the state has actively investigated the claims made or talked to residents or staff directly, instead waiting for employees at the facility to provide evidence of wrongdoing.

“The burden of investigation should not fall on residents and staff of this facility,” she said.

In a statement sent to the Banner, Rep. Ayanna Pressley also called for a “full, transparent and thorough investigation” in light of the allegations of wrongdoing and financial mismanagement.

Tim Foley, executive vice president at SEIU 1199, the union that represents staff at the Edgar Benjamin, said it requested receivership in January, prior to the announcement of the intent to close. Foley said the union received no response.

The facility has been put under receivership twice before, in 1979 and 1988.

The Edgar Benjamin came close to closing in the late 1990s after falling behind on its mortgage. Myrna Wynn, who was serving as president, and her board chair Perry Smith rallied community support to keep it open and convinced then-Congressman Joe Kennedy II to push mortgage-holder Prudential Insurance to tear up the note.

Prudential agreed, allowing the mortgage-free center to survive. Now, as real estate values skyrocket around Boston, some worry that speculators, attracted by a property with no liens, will turn it into expensive condos.

Administration of the center announced its pending closure amid allegations of financial mismanagement. BANNER PHOTO

While administration at the nursing home has said the pending closure is in response to financial challenges, officials said they see it as the result of mismanagement by Francis, whose salary quadrupled between 2015 and 2021, rising to nearly $630,000 according to financial records.

“We have reason to believe the administrator has used his position solely for his personal gain and that has put the facility and its residents in harm’s way,” Miranda said.

District 6 City Councilor Benjamin Weber, whose district includes the facility, said residents and their families deserve better leadership than Francis has been providing, and said he had no confidence in the current administration.

“They deserve transparency. Instead, what they got was a CEO who ran the place into the ground while apparently enriching himself,” Weber said.

Financial red flags

Questions about the center’s finances have reportedly been raised for years. According to sources, former state Rep. Royal Bolling Jr., while serving as a board member, clashed with Francis over what was happening with the money. According to reporting from Boston 25, Bolling said he was voted off the board after raising questions about the center’s finances.

Bolling, who left the board more than two years ago, did not return the Banner’s calls for comment.

Staff at the Edgar Benjamin Center have gone without pay in recent months, as checks have been delayed. The attorney g eneral’s office said it issued a $15,000 citation to the Edgar Benjamin earlier this month for failure to make timely payment of wages.

According to meeting minutes from the nursing home’s board of directors last year, the board identified payroll as the largest draw on funds, sometimes allegedly directing money toward paying staff over paying bills and other expenditures. According to those minutes, Francis sometimes funded payroll with personal money at a 12% interest rate.

Staff numbers at the facility have dropped in recent years. The Edgar Benjamin employed 274 people in 2015, per financial records filed with the IRS. In 2021, there were 115 employees.

Gloria Stamford, who has worked as a certified nursing assistant at the facility for 34 years, said that when staff leave or are fired, Francis doesn’t replace them.

When she first arrived there in 1990, Stamford said, there were about eight certified nursing assistants per unit. Now, she said, there’s generally one or two per unit.

Officials said they have faced limited access to the nursing home. Weber said he and his staff had been turned away.

Miranda said she went to the facility on March 8 to meet with residents, but was met by Francis, who tried to take her on a tour. She was able to enter and meet with residents after one came to collect her as a guest and bring her to a resident coffee hour.

“There were over 30 residents in a room, and I was able to talk to them,” she said. “Mr. Francis sat at the back of the room. They didn’t care, they just unleashed so much on me.”

A few days before the press conference, the state Department of Public Health held a virtual hearing on the Edgar Benjamin’s closure plan. During the nearly-two-hour conference call on March 12, family members of the center’s residents and current and former staff voiced concerns about the closure, as well as about steps that Francis and facility leadership have already taken to move toward shuttering.

The same allegations — that it was mismanagement by Francis that has put the facility in jeopardy, not outside financial stressors — were leveled during the hearing, alongside requests to keep the facility open, potentially under receivership.

During the call, staff from the Edgar Benjamin reported residents being transferred out of the facility. A facility cannot initiate a transfer before a closure plan is approved, though residents can. Staff members said communication around the transfer of residents is being directed through Francis, without input from staff, who would have insight about what other locations might be appropriate for a resident.

Marise Colso, the Edgar Benjamin’s director of nursing, said during the hearing that calls have been blocked and redirected to keep her and other staff from being informed about the transfers. She found out about two transfers, set to happen the day after the hearing, only through a sign posted in the facility.

A social worker who worked at the Edgar Benjamin until recently said during that call that she was fired Feb. 20 after she questioned the closure process.

Stamford said there’s the sense among staff that if you don’t agree with Tony Francis, you’ll get fired.

Also during the DPH hearing, residents’ family members aired concerns about having to move their relatives if the facility closes, as many long-term care facilities face staffing shortages that limit bed capacity.

For some on the call, a move out of the Edgar Benjamin would be the second in recent years, as they moved their family members into the center following the closure of another facility.

The question of where residents would go remains up in the air. Francis has said that the center will not shut its doors until all residents have been relocated, but staff said that there has been little support in helping with that process.

Staff and family during the hearing said they knew of available beds in other locations, like Medford and Malden, but those locations could prove hard to reach for family members who might not have reliable access to cars.

The March 12 call was the first of two scheduled hearings. The second will be held in person on March 26 at the Thelma D. Burns building on Warren Street, and comes after city and state officials pushed for an in-person hearing to supplement the conference phone call.

State Rep. Sam Montaño, who represents Mission Hill, where the Fisher Avenue facility is located, said elected officials requested that the in-person hearing be held at the Edgar Benjamin, to easily allow residents to participate, but were denied, adding more frustration to a closure process that she said has been incredibly closed-off and opaque.

“Folks here have mobility issues, they have health care issues; staff who want to participate have to work, they’re unable to come to an off-site hearing,” Montaño said. “We have been clear that this is the number one ask. We have not received it.”

Benjamin Healthcare Center