How an elder-care facility avoided virus problems — so far

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The sad, negative news about North Carolina’s nursing homes is piling up. Residents of the facilities make up about 40% of the state’s 354 COVID-19 fatalities, and lawsuits are popping over inadequate care at various sites.

Harold Van Derveer, 70, wants to tell a different side of the story. Operator of a family-owned propane dealership in Biscoe for many years, he and some partners started a nursing home for retired ministers in rural Montgomery County near Candor in 2001. The initial concept didn’t work, so the group changed strategies, eventually establishing Sandy Ridge Memory Care with 104 of its 120 beds assigned for seniors with dementia and other memory issues. The residents’ average age is in the high 80s, and 60% are on Medicaid insurance.

Sandy Ridge hasn’t had a resident contract the novel coronavirus, unlike many N.C. facilities that have had dozens. One person who was 105 died in recent weeks for other medical reasons. The facility is 60 miles south of Greensboro.

“We started preparing years ago by lining up machines, sprayers, disinfectants,” says Van Derveer, who sold his 60-year-old propane business to AmeriGas and became Sandy Ridge’s administrator 10 years ago. “You don’t use them till you need them, but now you have a hard time buying that equipment.”

In March, when N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper issued an order restricting visitors to senior facilities, Sandy Ridge trained staff on the virus and screened them whenever they reported to work. The facility has adhered to state requirements for staffing levels and hasn’t suffered the lack of workers reported by many other institutions, even though it operates in a small rural area. Most residents previously lived within 60 miles, mostly in Southern Pines, Asheboro and Troy.

“I decided we’re going to be the best, but we also can’t do it for nothing.”

Indeed, Van Derveer thinks the key problem facing the elder-care industry is limited funding for Medicaid patients: State reimbursements for Medicaid haven’t increased in a decade.

“If the state isn’t going to take care of elderly people, there shouldn’t be the finger-pointing that we are seeing,” he says. To qualify for Medicaid, patients can’t have income of more than $1,515 a month, or $18,180 a year.

Noting that some facilities operate in a lackluster fashion, Van Derveer says he doubts large chains of nursing homes can offer the best customer service versus small, family-owned sites. The Citadel Salisbury facility in Rowan County, where 18 deaths have occurred, is owned by Accordius, a New Jersey-based, private equity-backed company with many senior properties.

But he says there’s also luck involved in Sandy Ridge’s strong record in this crisis, he adds. “It only takes one person to bring it in, and it could happen to us tomorrow.”

Working six days a week, it sounds like he’s determined to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“You hold someone’s life in your hands in the long-term care industry,” he says. “We think we are the best facility in the state, even if we are in a small, poor county.”

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