LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — The owner of California's largest chain of nursing homes has come under fire for allegations of abuse and wrongful deaths in at least one of its facilities.
Czersale Hilton's mother, Geneva, 68, was admitted into Centinela Skilled Nursing & Wellness Centre West in Inglewood in 2014. Five weeks later, she was dead.
"I was shocked. Of course, I was shocked, because the last time I spoke to my mom, she was herself," Hilton recalled. "I loved my mother with all my heart, and I miss her every day."
Los Angeles millionaire Schlomo Rechnitz owns Centinela West. His charitable efforts have been chronicled on television. He's the same man who reportedly gave thousands of lottery tickets to some of his employees earlier this year.
During a layover in Ireland, he gave 400 American soldiers $50 each so they could purchase a meal.
Rechnitz's companies own 81 nursing homes in California, the most in the state.
In 2014, CBS2/KCAL9's investigative reporter David Goldstein tallied $500 million in taxpayer Medicare and Medi-Cal money. But they have come under fire for allegations of neglect, abuse and wrongful deaths, something that is well known to elder-care experts like Molly Davies.
"We see the same persistent problems. So that speaks to me of an unwillingness to make the necessary changes," Davies said.
Hilton has sued Centinela West, claiming elder abuse and negligence. According to the lawsuit, her mother "was admitted for rehabilitative care following a hospitalization for chest pains. Her lungs were clear and she was in good condition."
But five weeks later, she was rushed to a hospital in critical condition, suffering from pneumonia, dehydration and a body temperature of lower than 80 degrees.
According to the lawsuit, doctors suspected elder neglect. "So, something went on there. I am still not clear on what happened over there," Hilton said.
Goldstein visited Centinela West with a hidden camera. He witnessed a patient moaning, and his producer smelled human waste.
According to the most current 2015 Medicare nursing home profile, Centinela West has an overall rating of 3 out of 5 stars.
But the nursing staffing and health inspection categories both got only 2 stars, something Medicare considers below average.
Centinela West is not the only nursing home with multiple complaints connected to Rechnitz.
"It was like zombies walking around here," said South Pasadena police chief Art Miller, who described patients at South Pasadena Convalescent Hospital when it used to be owned by Rechnitz.
The federal government decertified it last year, denying its eligibility to get Medicare money. It happened after Courtney Cargill, 57, set herself on fire.
The FBI has also raided two of Rechnitz's facilities, including the Alta Vista Healthcare & Wellness Center in Riverside. No charges have been filed.
The California attorney general filed involuntary manslaughter charges against the Verdugo Valley Skilled Nursing facility in Montrose and two staff supervisors after a 58-year-old male patient died.
The attorney general tried unsuccessfully to block Rechnitz from owning more nursing homes saying his "continued and repeated refusals to comply with industry laws and regulations was harming the skilled nursing industry."
Patricia McGinnis with the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform asked: "If that's the case, why are you giving out more licenses to this company?"
"Under his particular company, we've had more closures and more decertifications in such a short period of time than any time that I can think of in the last 30 years," McGinnis added.
The California Department of Health, which licenses nursing homes, refused a request for an on-camera interview about Rechnitz's facilities.
After several requests for an on camera interview, a spokesperson for Rechnitz issued a statement: "Mr. Rechnitz has for years been an integral part of providing quality nursing home services to Californians, rescued 59 institutions from insolvency, preserved 6,000 jobs, provides life-aiding services to thousands of Californians."
The spokesperson said Rechnitz has gone above and beyond what is necessary to deal with the challenges of the industry.
As for Hilton, she is still searching for answers and hopes telling her story will help others. "I didn't want my mom's death to be in vain."
FULL STATEMENT FROM SHOLMO RECHNITZ
"No matter how much one sensationalizes a story with foreboding music, hidden cameras and scurrilous charges, the fact remains that Mr. Rechnitz has for years been an integral part of providing quality nursing home services to Californians throughout the state.
Regardless of the accusations of the rapacious plaintiffs bar, the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform and other special interests, the facts are clear:
• Mr. Rechnitz has rescued 59 institutions from insolvency, resulting in the continuation of care for more than 6,000 patients and the maintenance of 6,000 jobs.
• He currently provides life-aiding services to thousands of Californians; and
• He has dealt with any challenges that these homes have faced by going above and beyond what is necessary to meet those challenges.
Any claims to the contrary ignore the facts in favor of the kind of salacious, cheap headlines that do little more than damage someone who is working tirelessly to help a population that is far too often underrepresented."
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