When her husband’s Alzheimer’s began to overwhelm her, Patricia Howard started searching for a nursing facility that could care for him. A bit to her surprise, she settled on the village’s only long-term care operation, located on Roosevelt Road, despite having heard the horror stories during her 20 years in Forest Park.
Two days after he was admitted to the Berkshire Nursing and Rehab Facility in July, Howard brought her husband back home. But, she says, not because of any fault with the facility.
“I don’t know anything about spending a night away from him,” Howard said of her 36-year marriage. “It’s still hard.”
Howard’s husband soon returned to Berkshire and in the months that have followed she became a regular fixture in the hallways. Howard visits her husband daily and is on a first-name basis with the nurses, as well as Berkshire’s management staff.
Which is why, she said, when the home was named in late November as one of the worst nursing facilities in the country by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, it was impossible for her to square that designation with her experience.
“I couldn’t ask for anybody to be there more than these people have been there,” Howard said.
That federal list of more than 120 nursing facilities across the country was compiled using information gleaned over the last few years, all of which was obtained prior to a new ownership group stepping in just days before Howard’s husband became a patient. Berkshire Nursing and Rehab operates the facility formerly known as the Pavilion of Forest Park at 8200 Roosevelt Road.
“With this new team and myself here, people have done a lot better,” David Berkowitz, the home’s top administrator and co-owner said. “People like being here and want to be here.”
Along with Yosef Meystel, Berkowitz bought the former Pavilion when the facility was put up on the real estate market and facing closure following years of violations and tens of thousands of dollars in fines from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Since stepping in on July 1, 2007, Berkowitz said he has hired nine new department heads and turned over many of the staffing positions as well. New training methods were implemented and employees understand there is a greater level of accountability, said Berkowitz.
A spokesperson for the state oversight agency, which conducts inspections and investigates complaints for homes across the state, declined to comment on what may have been the fundamental problems at the Pavilion, but Berkowitz said that it comes down to management. Upon taking over, employees were given a chance to prove themselves and most of the staffing changes were made within the first three months of his tenure. It’s unlikely that those staff members were unaware of the state and federal regulations that govern their jobs, said Berkowitz, but rather, no one within the facility was checking up on them.
“Most important is the oversight,” Berkowitz said. “Like any business, if there’s not that oversight, [change] can’t happen.”
Berkowitz, 30, has been in the nursing business as an administrator for six years. He’s young, doesn’t wear a tie to work and usually rolls up the sleeves on his button-down shirts.
He’s there everyday, he says, and is a hands-on administrator. He is determined to build better relationships not only with the patients and their families, but with staff, too.
Kelly Anhalt was brought in as the new director of admissions and has worked with Berkowitz at other facilities. There are holiday parties, social outings and raffles for employees, she said. All of these things help workers buy into the job, said Anhalt, which translates into a better environment for everyone.
Part of Anhalt’s focus in the admissions department has been to steer the facility toward accepting more short-term patients in need of rehabilitation. With 232 beds, only five of which aren’t eligible for Medicaid and Medicare funding, Berkshire is operating at about 60 percent of its capacity. But by specializing in helping surgery patients and others discharged from area hospitals return to their own homes, Anhalt said Berkshire is turning over its beds quickly and building a reputation for getting people back on their feet.
“We’re not affiliated with the old company,” Anhalt said. “That’s not who we are.”
But Berkshire’s own past isn’t squeaky clean, either. Berkowitz’s business partner, Meystel, was the top administrator at Emerald Park Healthcare in 2005 when Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued to shutter the facility in an almost unprecedented move. Between 1997 and Madigan’s 2005 suit, the facility had racked up 168 federal health care violations, according to a report from the Chicago Sun-Times, and employed a number of convicted sex offenders.
According to Meystel, the circumstances at the former Evergreen Park nursing home were beyond his control and his tenure as the administrator was for only 15 months. The facility’s owners had no interest in funding the necessary changes, said Meystel.
“A building doesn’t go from A to Z in 15 months,” he said.
The state’s Department of Public Health confirmed that Meystel “is not restricted by IDPH with respect to his involvement in nursing homes,” nor does he have any restrictions on his administrator’s license.
As for his role at the Berkshire facility, both Meystel and Berkowitz said he is an investor and does not oversee the day-to-day operations. State records show that Meystel currently has at least a 40 percent ownership interest in four other Illinois nursing homes.
“I don’t think there is any concern with my history with the state,” Meystel said. “The situation I walked into [at Emerald Park Healthcare] was already a done deal.”