Community gets a victory in Benjamin saga

By Michael Coughlin Jr.

Over the last week or so, the fight to keep the Edgar P. Benjamin Healthcare Center from shutting down has ramped up, and on Wednesday afternoon, those wanting to see the facility’s doors stay open may have gotten a glimmer of hope.

The Benjamin, a non-profit skilled nursing and rehabilitation center located in Mission Hill, which has been serving residents since 1927, has been in danger of shutting down since February when Tony Francis, the facility’s Executive Director and Administrator at the time, filed a Notice of Intent to Close with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Francis has been under fire recently for reports, most notably from Boston 25 News, about alleged issues at the facility —

The Notice of Intent to Close document, dated February 13th, cites “persistent financial challenges, which were exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic,” as reasons for the potential closure.

The decision to initiate the closure process has been met with staunch criticism and anger from residents and workers at the facility, those with loved ones living at the center, and elected officials who are doing everything within their power to keep the Benjamin open.

Late last week, a petition was filed in Suffolk Superior Court, “asking for the immediate appointment of a receiver to take over management of the facility, to avoid imminent harm to patients,” according to Lawyers for Civil Rights’ website, the entity which filed the petition on behalf of families of residents at the Benjamin.

According to the website mentioned above, the petition cites “Critical management failures, staff shortages, inadequate supplies, and patient deterioration” as reasons why the appointment of a receiver was necessary.

Fast forward to Wednesday, and a judge ordered the appointment of a receiver, Attorney Joseph D. Feaster, Jr of Dain, Torpy, Le Ray, Wiest & Garner, P.C.

In response to the decision, State Senator Liz Miranda made a statement on her Facebook page, writing, “While we are still learning what that means and planning for next steps, this is a huge milestone for the preservation of health and safety of our seniors and staff at the Benjamin.”

The petition and subsequent ruling come off the heels of a hearing held last week that gave the community and elected officials an opportunity to provide comments to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, who were set to rule on the closure plan initiated by Francis.

Moreover, at this public hearing, Francis was also able to give his perspective on the potential closure.

Francis began his testimony by providing background information and speaking about how the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services rated the facility four stars.

However, he also spoke about the cost of running a facility like the Benjamin and how devastating COVID was for the facility, saying, “Frankly, things have never been the same since.”

Francis went on to call the current economic climate for long-term care the worst he has seen as an Administrator.

Ultimately, he said, “The continued operation of the Benjamin is simply not sustainable,” citing the strong competition for hiring staff. Later, he added, “It is with great sadness that we must accept reality that we simply cannot continue to operate our skilled nursing facility.”

The Mission Hill Gazette reached out to Francis, requesting comment about the petition filed before the judge’s ruling, and received a response Wednesday morning from Ball Consulting Group LLC, who is handling the facility’s media relations and referred the Gazette to Francis’ testimony given at the hearing.

The Gazette contacted Ball Consulting Group LLC again Wednesday evening to inquire about potential comments concerning the judge’s ruling on the petition and was told the facility has “not formally received a judgment yet” and had no further comment.

Following Francis’ testimony at the hearing, a plethora of elected officials, including Miranda, State Representative Sam Montaño, and City Councilors Henry Santana and Ben Weber, made it clear that they stood with their constituents.

“I just want to make sure that folks know that this is one situation in our community that we are all standing in unity,” said Miranda, adding that they rejected the closure plan.

Along with the comments from elected officials, residents of the Benjamin, staff, or those who have family members or friends who are residents provided testimony at the hearing detailing how troubling this situation has been for the community.

A resident of the Benjamin who said she was visually impaired questioned why residents would be removed from the facility and said, “The director failed to do his job, and he fired us. Does this make any sense to you?”

Later, adding, “In the name of the founder of the place, in the name of the community, in the name of the residents and workers, we declare Mr. Tony Francis a persona non grata.”

Another attendee who said she was speaking on behalf of her niece, who was transferred to the Benjamin, talked about the difficulty of advocating for loved ones when they are far away and her own experience of getting her niece into a facility in Boston, which took years.

“If the Benjamin closes, I don’t know where she’s going to go,” said the attendee. Later, she added that her niece could end up at another facility hours away and asked the Department of Public Health and anyone with the authority to keep the Benjamin open.

Another attendee, who has a son at the Benjamin, had similar concerns. “My son has good communication with mostly everybody at the Benjamin. They know him by name, and he knows them by name, and they’re good to him, and they love him, and I am a mother that is going on 80 years old,” she said.

“I am concerned not only about my child but I am concerned about everyone’s — all of those residents in the Benjamin. They are going to become homeless unless something is done,” she added.

Staff members also opposed the closure. One staff member who has worked at the facility for 24 years emphatically stated she stood against Francis, saying that she and other staff members came to work despite pay delays and other issues.

She spoke about how staff members are standing with and advocating for residents, saying, “We are the voice. As a group, we have reached out to every entity to help us.”

“The elderly are our most vulnerable population. If anybody has a mother, a father, a brother or sister — this could be you — this could be the predicament that you end up in.”

As the hearing progressed, speakers continued to provide testimony for around two hours. At the end of the hearing, a representative from the Department of Public Health indicated that a decision would be made on the closure 14 days after the hearing —  April 9th — which was initially confirmed Monday in an email from the department.

Regarding how Wednesday’s ruling on the petition affects the Department of Public Health’s decision, an emailed statement from the department said, “The Department of Public Health is in the process of reviewing the court order to determine how the appointment of a receiver may impact the closure process.”

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