Owners of AIDS Care Facility Stuck With Building After Booting Patients

Rivington House, founded in 1995, is closing its doors. "It's a shame," says activist Kathleen Webster.
Rivington House, founded in 1995, is closing its doors. "It's a shame," says activist Kathleen Webster.
Katie Toth

Rivington House, the city's lone nursing home dedicated to treating people with AIDS, is closing -- whether its owners have a buyer or not.

The nonprofit founded the historic nursing home in 1995, at the height of the AIDS crisis, to offer specialized hospice and nursing care at a time of stigma and fear. But for the last few years, the nursing home has been only half-full. Administrators say that's because AIDS is no longer the automatic death sentence it once was.

"What the need was then -- people were coming in our doors and dying every week or so," says Robert Goldman, communications director for VillageCare, which owns and operates the Lower East Side live-in and specialty outpatient facility. "That need has declined...[it's] not there in that large volume anymore."

Over the summer VillageCare began preparing the facility for sale by removing nearly 120 residents, relocating them to other facilities around the city or to private residences to receive home care. The Rivington House is equipped to hold 206 patients, but as of this week, only two remained. Meanwhile, VillageCare finds itself tangled in a complicated web of state health policies, city property regulations, and a disgruntled community.

Rivington House has a deed with the city specifying that the property must be occupied by a "nonprofit residential care facility." Any buyer who wants to make a profit will have to purchase the facility as a not-for-profit and then petition the city to change the deed.

But Rivington House is licensed by the State Department of Health only to provide long-term care for people with HIV and AIDS who have "a need related to their AIDS diagnosis," says Goldman. The nonprofit approached the state and asked about converting its very specific license to a generic long-term-care license, to make it easier to sell the facility to another nursing home provider. "It wouldn't have been a closure," says Goldman. "Hopefully the clients would have been able to stay...under another provider."

Governor Andrew Cuomo has made the elimination of nursing home beds and a move toward home-based care a pillar of his health care policy. So VillageCare's request was rebuffed by the state this summer. Since then, "There's been not a lot of progress, honestly," Goldman says. "We're still trying to figure out our options."

Cuomo's home care focus is one that shares support from a large swath of public health experts.

"Home and community-based care is often of higher quality, more likely to meet the individual's needs, and also has lower costs for the healthcare system," says NYU College of Nursing assistant professor Ab Brody.

But skeptics argue that not everyone in the area has a support system -- or illness -- that is conducive to home care. Some families can't put in the time to take care of a loved one. Sometimes, people are too ill to feel good in a house or apartment.

 

New York City councilwoman Margaret Chin, who represents the Lower East Side, tells the Voice that the neighborhood has already recently lost two nursing home facilities -- Bialystoker Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, in 2011, and the Cabrini Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, in 2012-- making the closing of Rivington House a particularly painful loss for members of the community needing nearby long-term care for their loved ones. Chin, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and a handful of legislators in Albany, including Shel Silver, wrote a letter on Wednesday to acting New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, urging him to allow the Rivington House facility to operate as a general nursing home.

"In situations where institutional care is necessary, it is important that there are still facilities within local communities so that individuals may be cared for as closely as possible to where their friends and families live," the letter states. "We urge you to ensure this building is preserved as a skilled nursing facility that maintains all beds in service."

On October 8, Lower East Side online news site The Lo-Down reported that VillageCare had found a buyer for the facility in spite of the red tape. Spokesperson Goldman confirmed an interested buyer but said nothing's been finalized. "We've opened the communication lines to other providers," he says. "Obviously, our intentions were to have a larger pool [of potential buyers]."

Kathleen Webster, a member of Community Board 3 and the president of the Sara Roosevelt Park Coalition in the neighborhood, says if VillageCare had informed the community sooner of its plans to sell Rivington House, they could have avoided displacing 120 patients who are now scattered throughout the city.

"I wish VillageCare would have come to the community early and possibly saved these men from being essentially evicted from their home in a very vulnerable condition," she says. "It's a shame."

Michael Chavez Reilly, whose father died at Rivington House in 2009, is also concerned about the patients being moved. He says he'd like VillageCare to be responsible for tracking the patients after their move and making sure they are getting the same standard of care. "These are some of the most vulnerable, marginalized people in our society," he says. "I just don't want us to forget about them."


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