Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Nursing Home That Ran out of Food Was Part of Financially Troubled Company

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Nursing Home That Ran out of Food Was Part of Financially Troubled Company

Article excerpt

FESTUS * With its parent company in free fall, and its president facing a mountain of debt and domestic violence charges, Benchmark Healthcare nursing home on Highway TT became a dirty and dangerous place.

As bills went unpaid, the phones were shut off. Paychecks bounced. Trash piled up, and the building was infested with flies.

Then the food deliveries stopped. Employees had to dip into their own pockets for grocery runs. Residents complained to state health inspectors that they were hungry. During the inspectors' visit in July, a Benchmark employee was seen trying to make a smoothie from seven pieces of dry toast.

Missouri state health officials went to court in July to put the nursing home into emergency receivership. They backed down when food deliveries resumed. But at a follow-up visit in August, inspectors found that four residents were not getting medicines they needed for congestive heart failure, epilepsy and schizophrenia because the pharmacy bills hadn't been paid in months.

Finally, on Sept. 13, the state took the rare step of closing the nursing home after relocating 60 residents to other facilities.

"It was just a disaster," said Ann Bickel of the Missouri Coalition for Quality Care, which advocates for residents in nursing homes. "Some nursing homes aren't as clean, some don't have as much staff as we'd like them to have, and there is abuse sometimes. But to this extent, I have never heard of this."

It was an ignominious defeat for the home's owner Legacy Health Systems, a Chesterfield-based family business established in 1938 in southeast Missouri by Clara Sells that had expanded to a $100 million company with 2,000 patients and 1,600 employees in 27 facilities across Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee before its collapse.

In recent years, Legacy sold almost all of its assets or had them seized by creditors. The Festus location was one of three homes left in the company's portfolio; about 200 residents live at its two remaining facilities in Sikeston and Puryear, Tenn.

Last week, the grandson of Clara Sells, Legacy president John Sells, 52, and his small staff were packing up their office near Spirit of St. Louis Airport before the bank takes it at the end of the month. A reporter walked into a discussion about how to secure 800 boxes of patient files.

Sells lamented it wasn't so long ago that his was the turnaround company, swooping in to take over and repair struggling nursing homes.

He insisted Legacy had always taken good care of its residents, even during its financial troubles. One of those patients was his own father, Connie Mac Sells, who died in April at age 79 at the company's nursing home in Matthews, Mo.

Sells was at a loss to explain how things got so bad in Festus.

"I've spent days walking through that whole process and trying to figure out exactly where the breakdown was," said Sells. "And I don't have an answer. I wish I did. I've done this all my life; this is all I've ever done."

FAMILY BUSINESS

One picture was still hanging in Legacy's foyer last week. It was of Annie Sells, Clara's daughter-in-law, John's mother, who took over the family business in the 1960s.

In 1971, she built Sells Rest Home in Matthews, about 10 miles south of Sikeston. Annie and Connie Sells had two boys, Johnny Mac and Ronnie Lee.

Matthews was the family's home base they renamed it to Close To Home Nursing Center.

Annie Sells expanded the Sells brand to 15 nursing homes before she retired in 1999 and moved to Arizona. Ronnie moved with her and said he agreed to sell his share of the business to his brother.

John Sells took over as president that year and sold all but the Matthews home. Then he rebuilt the franchise by taking over other nursing home chains. He borrowed millions of dollars to expand, and entered long-term contracts with suppliers of food, drugs and therapy services.

"Nothing is greater than a person's right to live comfortably and contentedly in a friendly, caring environment, regardless of their special needs or affliction," Sells told the Missourian in 2012. …

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