Nursing a Grudge

Jerry Ritchie is dying. He has emphysema, and as he moves around his small Arvada apartment, he carefully steps over the plastic tubes that link him to an oxygen tank. For the last several years, Ritchie has been in and out of hospitals and nursing homes, recovering from surgery and bouts with pneumonia. He knows his lungs may not hold out much longer.

"I've almost died twice," says Ritchie. "I can't hardly do anything anymore."

But he can still talk, even if his voice is raspy and he gasps for breaths between words. And he has plenty to say. The 67-year-old activist ticks off the names of the nursing homes he's endured--"They served food that inmates in a cell block would have rioted over," he says of one--and he loves regaling visitors with the tale of how he called police from another nursing home's bed to report the facility for substandard care.

Ritchie's best story of all, though, has yet to be concluded. While hospitalized with pneumonia in 1995, he was served with papers informing him that he'd been sued for slander and conspiracy by the Denver-based Meridian chain of retirement homes, a company that operates four centers in the metro area. In the lawsuit, owners Ralph and Trish Nagel accused Ritchie of telling lies about Meridian to people who called a "Renter's Hotline" service that he operated.

"I wouldn't move onto their property with a tent," Ritchie told one caller--who happened to be a private investigator working for Meridian.

As the lawsuit dragged on and Ritchie's health worsened, Trish Nagel's position only improved. Already influential at the Colorado legislature, where she lobbied against nursing-home reforms, in November she was appointed by Governor-elect Bill Owens to co-chair his transition team on health and welfare. That's the committee charged with helping to select Owens's nominee for director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the agency that regulates nursing homes in Colorado.

Colorado's enforcement efforts against nursing-home abuse are the most lax in the region, according to data compiled by the federal Health Care Financing Administration. While Colorado substantiated only 10 percent of the complaints against nursing homes that it received from July 1995 to August 1998, several neighboring states substantiated nearly half of their complaints. Nationally, 30 percent of such complaints were verified. Colorado health-department surveyors also found fewer deficiencies in their surveys than did their regional and national counterparts ("Dying for Dollars," October 15, 1998).

Nagel's role in choosing the state's new health director outrages Ritchie and other health-care activists. "For Owens to put her in charge," Ritchie says, "a woman who has done everything she can to stop the progress of better care and stood in the way of anything that would impede her power to earn money--to me that's a slap in the face to the people of Colorado."

Initially, Jerry Ritchie's interest in nursing-home abuses came not from personal experience, but from his work as a tenants'-rights activist. In the early Eighties, Ritchie realized that compared with landlords, tenants had very little power in this state, and he set out to balance the scales. Since Ritchie's illness restricted his ability to work outside the home, he and his wife set up a tenants' hotline that operated out of their apartment. While Ritchie kept the project afloat by reviewing leases for a small fee, to anyone who called he'd offer free advice about tenants' rights and how they might deal with certain situations. In the process, he also compiled files on problem landlords and companies.

Ritchie frequently called consumer advocate Tom Martino's radio show to discuss tenant issues. During one such appearance, he talked about the complaints he'd collected against Meridian.

On the air, Ritchie said he'd heard from several people who lived in Meridian communities or had relatives who did. Their complaints usually concerned disputes over security deposits and futile efforts to get their money back.

In November 1994, private investigator John Corsentino, working on behalf of Meridian, called Ritchie's hotline claiming to be a son looking for a long-term care facility for his elderly mother. According to a transcript of the telephone call, which Corsentino secretly taped, the private eye began by telling Ritchie, "I got your name from some referral agency somewhere." When Corsentino said he'd been looking at long-term-care facilities on the west side of town, Ritchie replied that the only such facilities he knew anything about were Meridian's.

"The last contracts of theirs that I saw on independent living take your rights away," Ritchie told Corsentino, adding that many independent-living facility contracts place extensive restrictions on their residents. Ritchie then talked about calls he'd received from Meridian residents or their relatives who were mad at the company, including one man who said his parents had died and the company was demanding three months' rent because no advance notice had been given.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers