SACRAMENTO — In a bipartisan 10-0 vote, AB 279 sailed through the California Senate Health Committee on June 23.

The bill is now headed to the Appropriations Committee, and then for a full vote on the Senate floor before mid-July, when the Legislature recesses for the summer.

The bill would stop the evictions and transfers of nursing home residents during a pandemic. California Department of Public Health records show that there have been more than 200 improper involuntary transfers since the start of the COVID state of emergency

Kensaku Nakayama, whose 98-year-old mother is a resident at Sakura Intermediate Care Facility (ICF) in Boyle Heights, said, “The vote was due to the combined effort of everyone who stepped up to the plate today. It’s still a long fight, but we’ll follow it step by step all the way.”

Pacifica Companies, which purchased the ICF and other Keiro facilities five years ago, is seeking to evict ICF residents in order to build a market-rate residential complex on the site. Save Our Seniors (SOS) and other advocates for the residents say that moving them from a COVID-free facility to the former Keiro nursing homes in Lincoln Heights and Gardena, where there have been several COVID-related deaths, would be life-threatening.

In his presentation to the Senate Health Committee, AB 279 co-author Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) stated, “Seniors living in nursing homes, as we all know, have been among the most vulnerable to COVID in the early stages of the pandemic. They accounted for almost half of all deaths due to COVID.”

Warren Furutani, former assemblymember and current senior advisor to Los Angeles City Councilmember Kevin de Leon, stated, “The pandemic has exposed and exasperated many disparities relative to health care, for example, the impact on communities of color are far worse than they are in other communities. And also it has shown the horrific treatment that we as a society have had toward the elderly.”

Mike Dark, staff attorney of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, implored the committee to further consider the consequences of the current state of affairs: “You would have lived the last year in near complete isolation, seeing people die all around you during the pandemic. Under current rules, you can be told that you will be evicted in 30 days even though you and your family aren’t even able to first visit new facilities because of ongoing COVID visitation restrictions. If that sounds unfair, that’s because it is.”

But what is driving these evictions? Muratsuchi referenced a recent New York Times article, stating, “During the course of the pandemic, nursing homes in California and elsewhere across the country have been illegally transferring their residents to homeless shelters and other unsafe facilities to take advantage of higher private insurance or Medicare reimbursement rates. One example is Rockport Healthcare Services, which manages the state’s largest chain of for-profit nursing homes. They have been repeatedly cited for illegal evictions.

“And in Los Angeles, my joint author on this bill, Assemblymember [Miguel] Santiago, represents Boyle Heights, where Pacifica, the owner of another for-profit nursing home chain, started transferring residents in the middle of the raging pandemic so that they can convert the facility into luxury apartments.”

Furutani continued, “The irony is that [Pacifica] is trying to transfer people to another facility that they own called Kei-Ai Los Angeles. Kei-Ai Los Angeles has the worst record of pandemic COVID-19 infections and deaths in the state of California. Pacifica has been trying to tell the community that those things have been fixed, but the track record has been firmly established relative to it ultimately being a death sentence if you get transferred there.”

This local and statewide emergency of illegal and immoral evictions is precisely what AB 279 intends to prevent, said David EZ Maldonado of SOS. “In the case of Sakura ICF, the bill would forestall the closure of Sakura ICF and reinstate the ‘Conditions of Sale’ until after the end of the declared COVID state of emergency. Pacifica would have to continue to provide bilingual, bicultural care and not decrease beds for low-income Medi-Cal residents, among other protections.”

The progression of AB 279 on a path to become law and the recent stall to Pacifica’s eviction plan have reinvigorated the families of residents who are still at the ICF.

“Pacifica should see the writing on the wall and provide alternative facilities in their assisted living facilities to those who remain,” stated Traci Imamura, co-chair of SOS.

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