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South Pasadena nursing home gets a new start with ownership change

South Pasadena nursing home gets a new start with ownership change
Casey Cargill, center, speaks about the death of her sister Courtney Cargill, who signed out of the nursing home under the old ownership and set herself afire. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

For eight years, South Pasadena police had a nursing home on their radar, as officers responded to 1,100 calls for service, some involving violent crimes.

During a 2012 meeting with police, nursing home operators promised to do what they could to keep the rate of calls down. And they did — by rerouting 911 calls back to the facility's nursing station, according to police.

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"That's insane that the people that were asking for help got rerouted to their captors," said South Pasadena Police Chief Arthur Miller. "It's just unheard of."

On Wednesday, on the steps of the facility formerly known as the South Pasadena Convalescent Hospital, Miller joined city officials in touting a change in ownership. Miller said he hopes to see a turnaround at the nursing home, which the new owners renamed South Pasadena Care Center.

"I think it's important that the new operators embrace the community and ... move forward from where we are now to make this a better place," Miller said. "That's what I'm looking for."

The new owners, Elliot Zemel and Yudi Schmukler, took over a week ago from businessman Shlomo Rechnitz, who had run the facility since 2006. It had lost its certification Jan. 5.

The business model had "changed dramatically" under Rechnitz, Miller said. The patient population went from mainly the elderly to those whose ages averaged about 37 and included convicted felons, drug users, rapists and robbers, Miller said.

Wednesday's announcement came less than a year after mentally ill patient Courtney Cargill died after she signed herself out of the facility and set herself on fire. On Nov. 7, Cargill, 57, walked to a gas station, where she bought a gallon of gasoline; she then headed to another gas station, where she doused and lit herself on fire.

Her family filed a lawsuit Aug. 12, alleging that Rechnitz, his Brius Management Co. and its subsidiaries tried to maximize profits from the operation of the facility by "underfunding, understaffing and undertraining the staff." The lawsuit is pending.

"She was not getting the care she needed here," said Casey Cargill, who held a photo of her smiling sister at Wednesday's news conference. "She just fell through the cracks."

In March, Miller attended an elder death review panel where he testified about Cargill's death. At that point the state attorney general's office decided to take on the case, which is pending at this time, Miller said.

"I am confident that the partnership between the South Pasadena Police Department and the California attorney general's office will yield a positive outcome for the prosecution of the entities or persons responsible for the death of Courtney Cargill," Miller said.

Zemel said he and Schmukler are working on getting the facility recertified (which would allow it to again receive Medicare and Medi-Cal reimbursement). He added that he and his partner plan to have the home again serve an older population and to hire new staff members to help create a "first-class facility."

A spokeswoman for Rechnitz said the facility had "provided quality healthcare" and that he wished the new operators success.

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Twitter: @brittny_mejia

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