Successfully taking the reins of a nursing home chain during the COVID-19 pandemic may seem like an insurmountable challenge, but Kevin Morris sees only opportunity ahead — both for his company, BaneCare Management, and the industry as a whole. It’s just up to the leaders within the industry to chart a better and safer path forward, according to Morris.
“I believe that the potential of what we can do in the next five years is infinite,” Morris told SNN. “I think it’s on us to map out and really dictate where we fit into the continuum.”
The Braintree, Mass.-based chain of 11 facilities promoted Morris to president this month; the post-acute and long-term care veteran had previously served as BaneCare’s vice president of operations for the south-of-Boston region, in addition to stints at Life Care Centers of America and Golden Living Centers.
SNN spoke with Morris earlier this month to learn about the state of COVID-19 play in the Bay State, his plans to weather the tough winter ahead, and his vision for change.
What made you want to take the top spot at a nursing home provider during the middle of this pandemic?
The reason I wanted to take this challenge at this time is [that] I’m excited to lead the organization through the pandemic and into our new world of health care. As challenging as the situation has been, I believe it’s opening up new opportunities. It really is putting our industry on the map as one of the sectors that is going to be required in our new clinical world, and that really excites me.
What do you think some of those opportunities are? I agree that we’re at a moment where operators who really want to reform the industry have a real chance to have their voices heard.
In my opinion, I believe the sleepy nursing home is a [thing] of the past, where it is a true clinical operation that is more integrated with our partner hospital systems — now more than ever. The development of those partnerships, along with the evolution of our clinical responsibilities, is what’s most exciting — being able to show other sectors of health care what we’re able to achieve in a nursing home, and how important we are in the post-COVID world since the first outbreak. That’s what’s exciting to me.
I think that the sector is going to have a number of closures in Massachusetts, because we’re at a point now where either you’re making the grade, and those that are falling behind, unfortunately, aren’t going to make it based on the restrictions and on the responsibilities that come along with COVID.
We’re in an ever-changing world right now, and it’s up to us, within our own industry, to map out how we’re going to come through this pandemic and what our future looks like.
At first, when the pandemic rolled out, it was a situation where we were just trying to get by, hour to hour, to meet the clinical needs of our patients, and keep our employees safe. Now, we’re in a phase where we have to kind of map out: What does the future look like? And how can we find our place within the health care continuum?
What are some of the specific strategies you’re looking at over the next six months to a year?
I personally believe that we’ll have a vaccination in 2021 that people are going to feel safe taking. The point right now is: How do we get from where we are today to that point? And even when we’re at that point, and at a point when we open up from the restrictions of COVID, there aren’t going to be busloads of patients that really are going to be there on day one.
So how are we going to survive? The stimulus funding is dropping off. Our expenses are higher than ever with regards to the PPE requirements of our staff, and staffing levels that we have. We’re seeing occupancy in the 70-percentile range.
So the challenge is: How do we maintain our clinical operations at a level where we’re keeping our residents and employees safe, and still make it through to a post-COVID world, which is more in line with what we’ve experienced in the past — i.e., no quarantine restrictions and PPE requirements being lowered and things of that nature? That’s really the challenge that we’re faced with right now. How do we bridge the gap?
We’re working now to take a look at what we can do on both controlling our expenses while maintaining our workforce at the decreased census level — because if you let some of your workforce go, they’re not coming back. That’s our greatest resource. How do we develop plans to meet the overall operational needs of the facility and still plan for the future? That’s what we’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis.
What’s the state of play right now for you around testing and PPE? We’ve seen plenty of stories about operators across the country still struggling to secure those crucial things.
With regards to PPE, we’re doing great. We’ve been able to form partnerships with multiple reliable sources that are able to acquire the PPE that we need, and it’s been fantastic. On the testing front, we definitely support surveillance testing. But it’s been an enormous challenge for our staff, depending on the size of the facility and the frequency of testing required.
It’s become way more than a full-time job to complete and manage the testing process. In Massachusetts, we are very fortunate that the state is one of the few states that pays for employee testing. That’s a great advantage that we have in Massachusetts.
We’re also very fortunate in Massachusetts that we have a partnership with the Broad Institute, [which is] tied with MIT and Harvard University. It’s a non-profit that is currently doing testing for over 200 nursing homes in Massachusetts, and they’re able to turn around tests in a very fast time period — in some cases, less than 12 hours. That’s positioning us to be successful with the surveillance program, so we’re very fortunate there.
What about the point-of-care tests from the federal government? There’s been a lot of controversy about their effectiveness.
In the state of Massachusetts, the Department of Public Health really doesn’t support them, because it doesn’t meet the need. We’re still doing the PCR testing. We’re still using an outside lab to do our testing, because we haven’t gotten the green light from DPH to do the point-of-contact testing.
If we have a patient in a facility that is showing signs and symptoms of COVID, we will utilize the point-of-contact testing to see if they come back positive or negative. But we always follow it up with the Broad Institute’s testing — which is great, because we’re getting the results back so quickly.
What are some of the bigger-picture changes you’d like to see come to the industry, maybe looking five years out or even longer?
I really believe today, now, with everything that we have in place, a nursing facility is one of the safest places to be during this pandemic, in the health care sector. The reason I say that is because all of the federal and state government agencies have provided us with guidance, and we’re running with it.
I believe the partnerships that have been formed between the federal government and our SNFs are stronger than ever now. I believe that everybody realizes funding needs to be improved to our sector, so that we’re able to do the things that we want to achieve.
You know the story: In Massachusetts, the Medicaid [rate] was $38 below the average cost per day on every Medicaid patient. Recently, we received $130 million of increases to our Medicaid rate — some of it across the board, or what they call the base rate, but a lot of it based on incentives and performance indicators. So that’s great.
I believe now that we’re more in tune. The federal government and state government understand how important our sector is to health care, and they’re willing to fund us.
I believe that the potential of what we can do in the next five years is infinite. I think it’s on us to map out and really dictate where we fit into the continuum. But I think now everybody realizes the impact of COVID, and the impact it had on our SNFs, and how we have rebounded.
I think the big piece here is that when COVID first started entering our facilities, it wasn’t a good thing. But I am proud of our industry in the way that we were able to evolve — to go from being the industry that was decimated by the virus to one where I feel today, we’re amongst the safest places to be. Our ability to evolve is something I’m really proud of.
I think that people are going to really understand now that we’re not just a sleepy old nursing home. We’re a clinical organization that’s needed within our clinical world.
As we’re seeing more and more communities in Massachusetts have upticks in cases with regards to COVID, we’re still seeing very low COVID positive rates in the SNFs. We learned from what happened in April and May, and we’re really evolving based on those challenges that were presented with the original outbreak of COVID.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.