By Michael Roberts
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By Patricia Calhoun
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"Virginia Fraser has done an excellent job. I don't think you can replace someone like her," says Jeff Jerebker, president of Pinon Management, a local chain that runs eighteen nursing homes. "The government has left her alone for years. Why muzzle her now?"
Trish Nagel, however, insists that Meridian had nothing to do with any proposed changes in the ombudsman program.
"In no way was Meridian involved in the Ombudsman's resignation," she said in a written statement provided to Westword. "We were as surprised as anyone when Ms. Fraser chose to resign her position. Based on Ms. Fraser's published statements, she resigned because she could no longer honor the terms of a longstanding contract her employer had with the state. To blame Meridian or others for her personal decision would be false and irresponsible."
Fraser herself declined to comment on Meridian, noting the ongoing dispute between the ombudsman's office and the Nagels over access to Meridian sites.
Fraser's resignation came as a shock to hundreds of people around the state who had worked with her over the years. But she says she came to feel she had no choice but to resign, leaving behind a program she'd spent a big part of her life building.
"[The state was] saying they were going to speak for the ombudsman and they would make the policy decisions," says Fraser. "It was outrageous. I decided this isn't working for me. Enough already." The 72-year-old Fraser believes she made a statement by stepping down, and she hopes the ensuing uproar will remind state bureaucrats of just how valued ombudsmen are in Colorado.
"I feel pretty good about dropping this bombshell," she says with a smile.
Virginia Fraser suspects she knows precisely what first incurred the Nagels' wrath.
It was the 1993 annual report issued by her office. In a section on personal-care boarding homes -- a broad category that includes assisted-living centers such as Meridian -- Fraser included one paragraph that alluded to the chain but didn't mention it by name.
"In larger assisted-living facilities," the paragraph read, "the majority of complaints have come this year from one ownership group concerning contracts which allow management to determine when and why residents are no longer 'appropriate.' In addition, they limit the ability of a resident to access Medicare benefits by insisting on 'their' provider, who is not Medicare certified. They have refused to allow ombudsmen posters and have attempted to deny access in certain circumstances."
The Meridian chain has five homes in the metro area, with a total of more than 1,500 residents. The company offers three different levels of housing, including independent-living apartments for people who don't need help with day-to-day tasks, assisted living for those who need some help, and small nursing homes in two of the facilities that care for people with more severe problems. The target population is the relatively healthy -- and wealthy -- elderly.
Meridian's homes are among the most expensive in the metro area, with apartments going for as much as $3,000 per month and rooms in nursing homes costing $50,000 to $70,000 annually. The complexes offer a dazzling number of recreational amenities, from Jacuzzis to on-site restaurants. Most Meridian residents say they like living there, and they give the company high marks for helping them enjoy their golden years.
Because the chain doesn't accept Medicare or Medicaid, residents must pay all expenses themselves. Meridian makes it clear that those with serious health problems such as Alzheimer's must go elsewhere.
The idea behind the three levels of care is that as residents age, they can move from one level to another. However, the contract Meridian residents sign says that company management always has the final say in what level of care is appropriate for each individual. This has led to some conflict when managers decide that an individual needs to be moved to assisted living or the nursing facility.
As a state-licensed facility, Meridian is subject to the state law that mandates regular inspection of all nursing homes by the health department. Earlier this year, the department cited the Lakewood Meridian for two violations of state regulations that require nursing-home residents to be given thirty days' notice of their right to appeal evictions. Trish Nagel wrote a blistering 39-page response, claiming the evictions involved residents with such severe conditions that they posed a potential threat to the health and well-being of other people in the facility. She went on to accuse the health department of drawing "a line in the sand that clearly puts the health department, with its dogma on one side and health-care facilities, who promise what they deliver and deliver what they promise in quality patient care, on the other side."
The most recent confrontation between Meridian and the state ombudsman's office took place this spring. Two local ombudsmen, Julie Christiansen and Ginger Perini, went to the Lakewood Meridian on March 20. At the front desk, they asked to be directed to the assisted-living section of the facility. After going to the fourth floor, they joined several residents playing bingo and struck up a conversation. "Within five minutes," Perini wrote in a report, "the general manager, Jan Van Blommesteyn, appeared and...requested that we go downstairs with him. In front of the residents he stated that we 'have no authority in this type of facility and the federal and state statutes do not say that we have access to this facility.' At this point he said we would need to leave the facility. We asked if Jan had been given this directive by Trish Nagel, and he indicated that he had and again asked that we go downstairs."