St. Mark’s looking for answers

Published 12:06 pm Thursday, June 30, 2011

Glenn Mair expresses his frustration over the current situation at St. Mark's Lutheran home during a meeting Wednesday night. -- Eric Johnson/

More than 120 people attended a meeting to discuss concerns about St. Mark’s quality of care and leadership

The message was loud and clear: Something needs to be done about growing concerns at St. Mark’s Lutheran Home.

More than 120 people filled St. Mark’s living room Wednesday night to call for answers and change at the nursing home that many argued isn’t living up to its historical standards.

“It’s been hard to see what happens to some of our residents here,” Kay Scherer said.

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Scherer said she has “seen the good, the bad and the worst” of St. Mark’s in the five years since her husband, Art, was admitted with Parkinson’s Disease.

In April, Art walked out of the physical therapy door without an alarm going off. Art, who Scherer said can barely walk, fell and was only helped when a woman from a nearby apartment saw him and sought help.

Art’s fall hasn’t been an isolated incident, according to Scherer. She said another man fell in a parking lot, and that man has fallen multiple times in the last few months.

“I hope and pray this will bring something to happen,” Scherer said.

Stories like this inspired the St. Mark’s Family Council to call Wednesday’s meeting to discuss concerns stemming from state reports and stories from residents and workers. By the end of the night, the family council formed a committee with about 20 people to begin discussing ways to address concerns.

Click here for a video of arguments from St. Mark’s

‘Make sure they do it here’

Family council member Jennie Saaranen highlighted multiple state and federal reports comparing St. Mark’s to other homes managed by Ecumen, St. Mark’s management company. A common trend appeared, showing St. Mark’s ranked the lowest of the company’s operating facilities.

Jean Mueller, regional omnibus representative, addresses a crowd Wednesday night at St. Mark's Lutheran Home about growing concerns at the home. -- Eric Johnson/

St. Mark’s was listed with the most deficiencies in the last two years with 19, compared to eight at the next highest Ecumen facility. An overall federal rating gave St. Mark’s two out of five stars, with one Ecumen facility receiving a three, and five others scoring five stars.

Jean Mueller, a local omnibus representative who oversees nursing homes in multiple counties, summarized many people’s concerns: If Ecumen can operate respected, high-scoring nursing homes in other communities, why isn’t it happening at St. Mark’s?

“Let’s make sure they do it here, because they have the capabilities to do so,” she said.

Mueller and others said the public must demand Ecumen match the level of resident care at St. Mark’s with other facilities.

Board of directors President Marty Helle said the numbers show Ecumen is capable of providing a high-quality care, which is why the board chose them to manage St. Mark’s.

“We hired Ecumen to bring our level of care up to the level of care that Ecumen has,” Helle said.

Multiple people in the audience interrupted Helle to argue the level of care at St. Mark’s has gone down since the firm was brought in.

The negative perspective toward Ecumen hasn’t helped, according to Helle.

“Throughout that five years, we’ve had nothing but resistance, protest, accusations and complaints about Ecumen,” Helle said. “And to a certain extent, I am disappointed in that, because I do believe if people would just get on board and follow the Ecumen plan, it’s obvious from every other system they have, that their system can work.”

Heather Rysavy, a former supervisor in charge of activities, said many employees embraced Ecumen’s arrival because they assumed there would be better benefits and innovative ideas.

“It has never come to this building,” she said.

Rysavy, who now works at Adam’s Health Care Center, said she is not sure the relationship with St. Mark’s administration and Ecumen can be repaired.

“They do have a lot of good things; but, it’s changed, and I don’t know if it can go back,” she said. “I don’t know if anyone here will ever want Ecumen or (Administrator) Christine (Harris), but we have to find a way to move forward,” she said.

‘This place has gone down hill’

Many in the audience argued Ecumen is not bringing the home up to par.

“In the two-and-a-half years that my father has been out here, this place has gone down hill,” one woman said.

“Since Ecumen came in, we look like a ghetto,” anther said, drawing applause.

Helle said St. Mark’s is not getting any different level of care from any other Ecumen facility.

Though many praised St. Mark’s resident care workers, employees and past employees expressed disappointment with the administration.

“I’ve been here 20 years, and I have no pride in working here anymore,” one employee said.

“This used to be the Cadillac of nursing homes,” another said. “Not anymore.”

Some questioned what’s driving the issues at St. Mark’s if Ecumen manages other well-regarded facilities.

“I’m not really sure Ecumen’s all that bad, but we’ve had the misfortune of having maybe an administrator that’s not in line with all their other administrators,” Saaranen said.

With other facilities scoring higher, Mueller agreed the problem may not be the managing company.

“It might not necessarily be Ecumen that’s the problem,” she said.

Many questioned if their message would be received. St. Mark’s administrator, Harris, was not at the meeting because she was on vacation.

“Administration was invited to attend the meeting,” family council president Dick Heuton told the crowd. “They have chosen not to. We can’t answer any questions beyond that because we can’t speak for them in guessing what they might say or think.”

No Ecumen officials were present, either.

“So this is the lowest running facility that Ecumen has, and nobody as an Ecumen representative is here?” said Carol Thomas, drawing applause from the crowd. “They’ve scored rock-bottom and had several violations in their facility, and no one is here. I guess that says a lot.”

However, Helle said he and the other six board members in attendance would fully inform Ecumen officials of what was discussed at the meeting.

‘There’s not enough help’

State and federal ratings don’t hold nursing homes to a high level of care through inspections and surveys, according to Mueller. The reports demand a minimum level of services, she said.

“These are minimum standards,” she said. “These are not above average standards.”

Sub-par care, according to Mueller, can lead to further problems in a home — like abuse.

“Poor quality of care is really just a stepping stone to further issues,” she said.

Even though Helle said the board and administration correct deficiencies immediately, Mueller said similar issues keep popping up at St. Mark’s.

“It keeps being repeated. It doesn’t get sustained,” Mueller said. “We don’t expect a perfect facility. There isn’t any that exists, but we do expect a facility to be able to maintain a higher level of care.”

While people applauded resident care employees, Scherer and others said workers are stretched thin.

“There’s not enough help,” Scherer said.

‘We see it a different way’

Many people questioned Helle for the board’s decision not to follow a 38-12 recommendation last year by St. Mark’s corporate congregations to remove Ecumen. The board of directors, according to Helle, governs St. Mark’s and is in charge of selecting an administrator — not the corporate churches. The board heard the motion as an advisory, Helle said.

Former St. Mark’s Administrator Glenn Mair said past practices indicated the corporate churches had more of a say. While the board ran the home most of the years, the constituents, he said, were always in charge at the annual meeting.

“We didn’t go through that motion a year ago just for the sake of somebody with a law degree to tell us that we’re wrong on that,” Mair said. “We see it a different way.”

Helle expressed willingness to listen and attend the meetings of this new committee, though he wouldn’t promise to be a member because he doesn’t know if the group will have an agenda.

“We do have common goals: We all want this place to run well,” Helle said. “We want you to continue, we want this outpouring of concern.”

Despite many pointed remarks, Helle said, he was glad he attended.

“It was a good meeting,” Helle said afterward. “Things that were said needed to be said and they needed to be heard.”

Still, many kept going back to those who didn’t attend.

“If Ecumen wants this to run properly, they should be here,” Scherer said. “I really don’t understand why they can’t come.”