Traci Imamura of Save Our Seniors speaks for the families of the residents during a protest outside Sakura Intermediate Care Facility in Boyle Heights. All of the residents were later evicted. (Rafu Shimpo photo).

RAFU STAFF REPORT

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday vetoed AB 279, introduced by Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance), which would have prohibited senior care facilities from evicting or transferring patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The legislation would have prohibited a senior residential care facility from making significant changes to the delivery of residential care services during the COVID state of emergency unless the owner of the facility declared bankruptcy.

Gov. Gavin Newsom

AB 279 was a response to for-profit developer Pacifica Companies’ decision last year to shut down the Sakura Gardens Intermediate Care Facility (ICF) in Boyle Heights and convert the property into apartments. As of September, all residents have been transferred from Sakura Gardens.

Pacifica purchased the ICF from the nonprofit Keiro in 2016 under conditions of sale approved by then-Attorney General Kamala Harris. Those conditions required ICF residential care services to use the Japanese language and cultural amenities for at least a five-year period, which expired in February.

In a letter explaining his veto, Newsom stated that the legislation could have “unforeseen consequences” that would have negative impact residents of intermediate care and skilled nursing facilities. Last month the California Department of Public Health stated its opposition to the bill.

“Requiring a struggling facility short of bankruptcy to remain open may lead to conditions where care is compromised because the facility is not able to retain staff,” Newsom said. “For example, facilities short of bankruptcy with inadequate staffing will struggle to implement measures to limit COVID-19 transmission and prevent outbreaks.

“Furthermore, the California Department of Public Health does not have the legal authority to compel a facility to continue operating or providing services if the facility wishes to close.”

Speaking to The Rafu, Muratsuchi expressed deep disappointment in Newsom’s decision.

“We fought hard to save Sakura Gardens, but apparently that did not persuade the governor that banning evictions and involuntary transfers during the COVID pandemic should outweigh concerns over government intervention in ensuring that nursing homes can continue to provide services so residents don’t experience transfer trauma,” Muratsuchi said.

Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi

“But the fight continues, I already have a second bill, AB 1502, that I have introduced to strengthen and fix the state oversight over who is owning and operating our nursing homes. This case of Sakura Gardens clearly provided Exhibit A of the problem when we have a real estate developer coming in to buy these elder-care facilities.”

During testimony on Tuesday before the Assembly Health Committee, lawmakers blasted the Newsom administration for a lack of urgency in addressing nursing home oversight concerns.

Assemblymember Jim Wood (D-Santa Rosa), chair of the Assembly Health Committee, questioned Cassie Dunham, an acting deputy director of the California Department of Public Health, CalMatters reported.

“Where is the proactive, patient-centered, public safety approach here?” he asked Dunham. “Where is that? Because I don’t feel it right now. And yet here we are. Here we sit. We have to wait for news articles. We have to wait for people to die.”

Muratsuchi said AB 1502 was introduced as a companion bill to AB 279 and that Wood has committed to strengthening oversight of senior care facilities.

“The state needs to strengthen its regulation over who owns and operates these facilities, so their priority is on high-quality resident care, rather than looking for investment opportunities,” Muratsuchi said. “Clearly the state and county departments of public health need to do a better job in ensuring the safety of our nursing home residents.”

David Monkawa and Traci Imamura, representing Save Our Seniors, said the governor had chosen to side with Pacifica over the elderly residents, many of whom had been incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II. SOS claimed that there have been more than 200 citations for involuntary, non-medically necessary nursing home transfers over the past 18 months, “some resulting in ‘transfer-trauma’ and leading to premature death.”

“The governor delivered a gut-punch to residents facing transfers and evictions from skilled nursing facilities. In particular, to Japanese women in their 80s to 100s; including some who were ‘evicted,’ and sent to U.S. internment camps in their youth during WWII,” Monkawa and Imamura said.

“The governor believed the myths from the California Department of Public Health’s Cassie Dunham, who claimed along with Pacifica Co. that the ‘ICF was financially struggling on the verge of bankruptcy.’ Pacifica’s execs signed off on documents and bought the facilities in 2016 and acknowledged the ICF was losing money. They knew the property value will be worth much more than the projected losses, especially if they could replace the ICF with market rate housing …

“For the few internment camp survivors now in the twilight of their years, they have been evicted again, likely for the final time. Gov. Newsom’s veto will be seared into the hearts of those women, their families and the community as a racist dismissal of human and civil rights. How long must we continue to scream out ‘Never again’?”

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