To Turn the Page on Tragedy Under Previous Operator, Philosophy Care Focuses on Transparency, Track Record

Turning around a struggling nursing home is no easy task, and that task becomes more challenging when the skilled nursing facility’s struggles played out in national headlines.

But for Philosophy Care Group, the challenges of taking over a troubled facility were mitigated by the presence of a strong staff — and by the knowledge that there was there was a need for the services the SNF provided.

The New York-based Philosophy has six facilities in the Empire State, and its recently acquired Phoenix Center for Rehabilitation and Pediatrics marks its first site in New Jersey. It has both pediatric and geriatric wings, with 92 beds and 135 beds respectively, and it’s not the company’s only facility that offers pediatric services; the other is Pathways Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Niskayuna, N.Y.

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That facility gave Philosophy a sense of what might be needed to take over the Phoenix Center. Before it was purchased by Philosophy Care Group at the beginning of 2020, the Haskell, N.J. facility — then known as the Wanaque Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation — was the center of a major tragedy: an outbreak of adenovirus that killed 11 children.

Now under new ownership, and with the announcement of Natasha Islam as administrator of the facility, Philosophy and Phoenix are working to make significant improvements to the — and to make sure that it has the expertise and the protocols in place to provide the best care possible to its residents, which range from children to seniors.

Skilled Nursing News caught up with Islam and Daniel Schaffer, executive vice president of Philosophy Care Group, to talk about that process. The conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Can you talk a bit about the history of the Phoenix facility, and how your work at Pathways will help in terms of adopting best practices and oversight?

Schaffer: Pathways is a five-star rated facility; we are able to have ventilator care at Pathways and normal rehab for our children. So the pediatric space was something that we are familiar with, and that’s what made the acquisition of the Phoenix center one that was interesting for us because we understood the history of the facility. And we thought that we would be able to bring our expertise that we had and our success that we had at Pathways over to Phoenix Center.

Last year, when Phoenix was called Wanaque Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, there was an outbreak at the facility that unfortunately led to the death of 11 children. The state was involved, and they saw that their infection control programs were not in place, and that the response to the outbreak was not quick enough. On top of the 11 children who passed away, other children were hospitalized as well. As a result, both the state and federal governments got involved with the facility, and at that time, the previous owners had decided to put the facility up for sale. At that point, Philosophy Care and the owners had decided to make the purchase of the facility.

Obviously there’s challenges in taking on a facility with this history, but Philosophy also clearly sees an opportunity to improve it in terms of care. Can you talk about why this acquisition has upside?

Schaffer: Primarily we saw that there was a need for the services in the state of New Jersey. We account for almost a third of the pediatric beds within the state, and the state really did need a good operator to come in and manage the facility. Obviously, first and foremost, there was a need for this.

And what also stood out to us, when we walked into the facility, we saw a great staff. We saw and talked to the staff that were here, and it was very easy for the staff to have just walked away after the entire outbreak and go elsewhere and find employment elsewhere. The employees here really were dedicated to the facility and dedicated to the children. Walking into a facility that had such a staff in place already made the opportunity that much more exciting for us, because we knew already we had partners, willing employees that were just wanting to do more and better for the children.

Natasha, can you talk about some of the measures that you’ll be taking at the facility, and what some of your goals are as you come into this role?

Islam: I’ve been since about late October [2019], and I’ve been assessing a lot of things for the facility to see what we can do to make it better. We just recently purchased VOCSN, a new ventilator system for the pediatric unit; this new equipment is much lighter, less noisy, so it enhances the quality of life for our children. It’s been well-received so far with the Department of Education, which we do have in the facility, and with rehab and the staff in the pediatric unit.

We’re already talking about renovation; we’ve looked at renderings for the facility for the pediatric units, to make it much brighter and fun. We’re going with possibly an aquarium theme, which will also enhance the quality of life for the kids. We’re also looking into the recreational activity programs that we currently have in the facility, and I’m working very closely with my activities director to see what else we can do to maximize their best potential. They’re going to school during the day, mostly from 9 a.m. until about 2:30, and then they come home to us. We want to really continue their education, and really maximize their best interests by providing more programs for them.

We are also working on creating a medical advisory board. That’s something that Daniel and I are working very closely with; we’re trying to get other medical advisors like other pediatricians, other doctors, in forming this group to really help me enhance the program that we already have in place for the pediatric unit. My whole vision is for them to do quality assurance, give us feedback, to really take the medical care to the next level. That’s something that we already initiated and started the search for; we’re going to move forward with that as well.

How many people would be on that board, and how many do you currently have in that role?

Islam: We’re starting off with two right now, but my goal is to get it up to four and five. The more the merrier — the more people that could come in and give ideas and their expertise to make it better, that’s my goal.

We’re still in contact with the [infectious disease] consultants that the state actually mandated when the whole outbreak occurred in 2018. So I’ve communicated with them several times since I’ve been here. They’re an excellent part of the team as well, that helps me progress as I’m here right now at Phoenix.

Just like Daniel mentioned, the one thing that also made me want to come to this facility is the staff. They’re very on board with the vision that we have into place. The morale has gotten so much better since we’ve walked in. And that makes it very exciting for me, because I have a great team backing me up to progress and make Phoenix Center the way it was before prior to the outbreak — make it better. My big goal is just to make the children’s life just a little bit better every day as we come in; at the end of the day, they become our family. They see that as well.

How have conversations with local health care providers and referrers gone? How do you broach the history of the facility and handle those discussions?

Islam: I’m very honest with what’s happened, and the past history with the adenovirus in 2018. So, of course, if they have questions about it, I answer them honestly, and then I talk about what happened and what we’re doing to prevent those occurrences from happening again.

But my first thing: I’m very transparent, I don’t hide anything. I want to be open to the community, because everybody in this area knows what happened. The people that I talked with in the community, we do acknowledge it, and then we tell them what happened. We’re moving forward. And that’s my whole vision right now: moving forward and being honest about what happened in the past.

Some conversations have been difficult, but I think everybody understands what happened in the past, and with the new team coming in, they’re very hopeful for changes.

Schaffer: If I can add to that, the local hospitals have really welcomed us with open arms. Since we’ve taken over, they’ve been happy to share their experiences that they’ve had with the facility, and also give their input as to how to improve the product and the facility as a whole. So we’ve had very productive conversations, and they’ve been great local partners with us.

How have you been handling the conversations with patient families, then? I would imagine if the conversation with local health care partners is difficult, that one would be even harder.

Islam: Actually, honestly, it has not been. They’ve been very welcoming since I’ve been on board. I think some of the questions that some of my residents have are really what the vision is, and what we’re going to be working towards, moving forward. Again, like I said, I do acknowledge what happened in the past, and we have conversations on that, but it’s really moving forward. Everyone’s looking forward to that, with the vision that we have in place for the facilities.

Do you have anything else that you’d want to add?

Schaffer: One of the main goals of Philosophy Care, both on the geriatrics and the pediatric side, is to have excellent customer service and care. That is something that our company has really been on the forefront of, and it is one of our main priorities.

We want every family member to feel comfortable when they’re leaving their children in our care. We don’t view it as a as an obligation, we view it as a privilege. And we tried to institute that in the culture of our staff, to make them understand that it really is a privilege that we are being given the opportunity to care for their children — and likewise on the geriatric side also. We want to make sure that the experience that they’re having at the facility is positive, and the outcomes as well are positive.

Islam: Echoing Daniel’s comments, as we’re growing, there are going to be different initiatives and programs that we’re putting into place to really focus on the care, plus the customer service aspect of it. In the near future, you’ll probably hear more about that, but that’s one of my main goals, too: the patient experience. Them coming in and leaving knowing that they got the services they deserve in the facility.

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