Monica Webber speaks with WREG Investigator Zaneta Lowe at WREG.

Monica Webber told WREG she was so afraid of what was happening at her grandmother’s nursing home, she once called the police on them. And what happened next, left the family with more questions than answers.

A months long WREG investigation reveals the same nursing facility, is one of hundreds across the Mid-South that broke the rules during the pandemic, yet reaped additional rewards.

Webber hugs her daughter Anah as they sit in front of her grandmother’s grave.

When you lose a loved one, the milestones passed without them, tend to leave more of a mark.

“You had a birthday since we were here last time and seen her,” said Webber to her daughter Anah as they sat together on a blanket in front of Webber’s grandmother’s grave at a cemetery in Walnut, Mississippi.

It’s those type of moments Webber reminded Anah, they can forever share, as the two embraced and Webber spoke quietly toward the grave. “She’s always with us, that’s for sure. Always. Yep. We love you ‘mamaw’, very, very, very, very much.”

Webber’s grandmother, Joy Stafford, died June 18, 2020. 

“I’m at peace that she’s not suffering. But what remains is. Accountability. Resolution,” Webber told WREG.

Stafford, blind and bedridden, was a resident at Diversicare of Southaven and one of the first at the facility to die from COVID. 

The virus has killed a total of 22 residents at the nursing home, and 96 living there have tested COVID positive.

Along the way, the nursing home has drawn scrutiny from federal regulators and families questioning whether it failed to prevent residents from being exposed to COVID.

Webber said, “When you’re in a position to care for elders, you should do everything by the book and above. And it simply was not done.”

According to federal documents obtained by WREG, about a month after Stafford died, the National Guard conducted mass testing at Diversicare of Southaven on July 27, 2020 for all residents and employees. 

However, residents and employees at Diversicare of Southaven went for weeks without knowing their COVID-19 status.

Records reveal the nursing home’s administrator didn’t get the test results back until being prompted by state surveyors who showed up for an inspection and complaint investigation, some three weeks after the testing was done. Surveyors were on site at the facility from August 20-28th.

“Webber said to WREG, “It’s just a, it’s a bad situation. You think of, what were they hiding, what, what was the reasoning in all of this?”

In addition to the delayed tests results, during their visit, surveyors found employees not following infection control guidelines, as they weren’t wearing face masks appropriately or social distancing six feet apart.

When the surveyors informed the administrator of what they observed, he threated to write up the employees. Yet according to the records, he wasn’t wearing a mask or social distancing himself.

As it relates to the test results surveyors noted the administrator said, “It doesn’t matter anyway, we are past our 14 days, so I’m not worried about it.”

Meanwhile, staff members and residents were worried. One LPN told surveyors she asked the administrator several times about tests results, but he told her he hadn’t gotten them yet.

Surveyors noted a comment from a resident who stated, “It bothers me that I’ve not been told something. I’ve asked the Administrator and he told me don’t worry about it because it has been over 14 days, but I do worry about it, I want to know something.”

After finally getting the results, the surveyors found that two employees were COVID positive and had not been informed due to the “delay from the Administrator to obtain the test results from the MSDH lab.”

Regulators said allowing the employees to work with symptoms and never quarantine potentially exposed 135 workers and 105 residents to COVID who hadn’t previously tested positive.

Both employees marked ‘no’ on the symptoms sheet on the daily sign in, but admitted to surveyors they had symptoms. One said, “I assumed I was negative because I hadn’t heard anything. I always have headaches and I have sinus stuff, but I didn’t think I had COVID.”

The other revealed she did not mark that she had a headache or runny nose. She told the surveyors, “I didn’t think anything of it. In the last three weeks, I have went to residents’ rooms and delivered items…I have also completed three new hire orientations and I have conducted two interviews.”

The surveyors noted the same two employees weren’t properly wearing masks or social distancing six feet apart.

Regulators cited Diversicare of Southaven with one of the most serious deficiencies possible and fined the facility more than $125,000, which was later reduced to $81,887 (after waiving an appeal). They said the facility wasn’t following infection control safety practices and the conditions constituted an Immediate Jeopardy to residents’ health and safety.

The facility had to submit a corrective action plan, and surveyors also ordered immediate COVID testing for employees and residents.

According to the survey, the administrator was placed on leave related to the delay in obtaining COVID tests.

“Then to read facts, after all this, that have come to light, employees admitting, hey we did have symptoms, and went to work. These elders were exposed. You go from being hurt to angry,” said Webber.

Read the full August 2020 survey here.

However, after being fined by federal regulators, our investigation shows, the government turned around and rewarded Diversicare of Southaven.

Like other industries hit hard by the pandemic, nursing homes got a boost from the federal government in the form of relief funds.

Provider Relief Funds were given to thousands of facilities across the country, in multiple waves as facilities grappled with COVID outbreaks.

Some of the money was issued in the form of incentive payments for facilities that could show lower infection and mortality rates.

Funds from from the Nursing Home Quality Incentive Payment Program or QIP, could be used for staffing, testing and infection control programs.

The government created formulas to score nursing homes for their performance on infection and mortality during certain reporting periods, then provided incentive payments based on the data.

Out of a total of 204 Mississippi nursing homes, 177 facilities got $25.4 million in incentive payments. This represents more than 400 payments made between September and December of 2020.

Diversicare of Southaven received $408,395, the most sent to any facility in Mississippi.

WREG showed Webber what we uncovered.

“Wow. that’s news to me! Mind blowing. Mind blowing yet, disgusted,” said Webber.

WREG analyzed multiple sets of federal data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and Health and Human Services for this investigation.

We reviewed fines issued by CMS during 2020 and 2021 (calendar year) for eight specific, deficiency tags including Infection Prevention and Control, Reporting-National Health Safety Network and Covid-19 Testing-Residents and Staff.

WREG examined the civil money penalties as they were listed by CMS from May through August of 2021.

(*Important Note-These penalties fluctuate and the same amount may not appear on this page, often used by the public. Our review also does not include penalties assessed for numerous other deficiency categories.*)

Our team cross then cross referenced the fines issued, with the incentive payments given to nursing homes.

Diversicare of Southaven is far from alone. Our investigation found hundreds of MidSouth nursing homes that had deadly outbreaks and were fined specifically for infection control or Covid, yet collected extra cash.

In Northwest Mississippi communities near Memphis, WREG found the following nursing homes received incentive payments and paid penalties.

  • Cornerstone Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center (Corinth, MS)
  • Great Oaks Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center (Byhalia, MS)
  • Holly Springs Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center (Holly Springs, MS)

According to the data WREG reviewed, there were also two Mississippi facilities whose fines were higher than their incentive payments-Lamar Healthcare and Rehab (Lumberton, MS) and Bedford Care Center of Marion (Marion, MS).

Read the full list of Mississippi nursing homes that received incentive payments and facilities that were fined here.

Tennessee

There are more than 300 nursing homes across Tennessee, and the majority, 282, received incentive payments totaling $49 million in multiple rounds during the fall of 2020.

Of those that received incentive payments, NewsChannel 3 found just over 30 facilities that were also penalized during the timeframe for which we reviewed data.

Life Care Center of Copper Basin (Ducktown, TN) was fined the most at $623,580. The facility’s fine was much higher than its incentive payment totaling $185,897.

In Memphis, five nursing homes paid fines in the categories reviewed by WREG. All of the fines were related to not submitting weekly data to the CDC, which WREG found is mandatory for being eligible to get incentive payments.

CMS issues a fine of $1,000 for violations of reporting requirements. Those are reduced to $650 when the nursing home waives its right to a hearing.

  • AHC Harborview-$4550 (fined multiple times for the same non-reporting violation)
  • Majestic Gardens-$650
  • Parkway Health and Rehab-$650
  • The Highlands of Memphis Health and Rehab-$650
  • Kirby Pines-$650

Read the full list of Tennessee nursing homes that received incentive payments and facilities that were fined here.

Arkansas

In Arkansas the numbers really stood out. The are 186 nursing homes (out of a total of 223 statewide) that received roughly $24.6 million in incentive payments.

But in the same state, the NewsChannel 3 investigators found more than 80 facilities that received incentive payments, and were also hit with a covid or infection control penalty.  That’s nearly 45 percent of all the Arkansas facilities that received incentive payments.

So, the same 80 plus facilities that raked in roughly $9.7 million in incentive payments, also racked up $1.3 million in fines.

There were also two facilities in Arkansas whose penalty was higher than their incentive payment.

Ozark Nursing Home (Ozark, AR) was fined $113,625, while its incentive payment was $78,029.

Ozark Nursing Home received its incentive payment for the performance period of September. A survey from November shows employees who were known to be positive went to work anyway. Some were asked to come in and work on the COVID hall. The cases in question happened in October, one month after the September “performance” month.

The Villages of General Baptist Health Care West in Pine Bluff received incentive payments totaling $5056 and its fine was $20,520.55, a difference of $15,464.55

Harris Health and Rehab in Osceola had biggest fine in Northeast Arkansas, and second largest in the state of fines examined by WREG, a total of $72,159.75

Brian Lee runs the advocacy group Families for Better Care.  He’s reviewed some of the same data for nursing homes nationwide, and we shared what the NewsChannel 3 Investigators uncovered about MidSouth nursing homes.

Lee said, “I don’t know where it is that, you know, you could have a bad performance in your job, so to speak. And yet you get to take home the bonus payment at the end of the year!”

He continued, “I think that when you see those facilities that were fined and then they received bonus payments and there’s that erosion of enforcement, it’s just really a slap in the face to the residents who live there. It’s a slap in the face to the families who have loved ones in these facilities where there, where they had serious outbreaks of deaths.”

Map of Area Nursing Homes that were Penalized and Paid, Including COVID Cases and Deaths

(Most recent COVID data from CMS was for the week of 10/17/21)

After WREG showed Webber details about the incentive payments Diversicare of Southaven received, she said, “I want answers for that, as a taxpayer, I want to know why!”

So did the NewsChannel 3 Investigators, so we went to the people handing out the money, the Health Resources and Services Administration.

HRSA is part of Health and Human Services, the same government department that houses CMS, the agency that regulates nursing homes and hands out fines.

A spokesperson from HRSA emailed WREG details about the Provider Relief Progam, and when asked if infection control and violation history were considered when doling out incentive payments, said the following, “Nursing homes have been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic given their congregate nature and the increased challenge of controlling infections within their facilities.”

The statement continued, “The Nursing Home Infection Control Quality Incentive Payment (QIP) Program created last year was intended to provide resources to providers to enhance their infection control activities. Nursing homes that received payments as part of the Program were checked for having active, non-terminated certifications and against CDC NHSN quality checks. They must also comply with strict standards regarding how they utilize the resources they receive to protect their residents and staff against COVID-19. Non-compliance with any term or condition of the program may be grounds for recoupment of some or all of the payments made by HHS.”

Nursing homes that received more than $10,000 must report how they used the money.

September 30th marked one of the first reporting deadlines, but receipts for the incentive payments received during the fall of 2020 aren’t due until next year.

In talking with Webber about the additional payments and penalties, WREG asked, “This is unacceptable for you?”

She replied, “Very. Oh, yes, ma’am, very much!”

Diversicare of Southaven was cited again in February after surveyors once again found workers not properly wearing face masks. They called it a “repeated deficient practice”. The facility was fined $6500.

Read the full list of Arkansas nursing homes that received incentive payments and facilities that were fined here.

Read the full February 2021 survey here

“If you allow something to keep happening over and over again… and then getting away with it, then what’s going to happen? They’re going to feel like they’re not going to have to be held accountable or responsible and it’s going to continue,” said Webber.

Webber’s grandmother might be gone, but she told WREG she refuses to let her story die.

The NewsChannel 3 Investigators reached out to Diversicare’s corporate office multiple times by phone and by email. A spokesperson responded and said the company would not be providing an interview or comment for the story.

WREG has learned the administrator who was on the job last year at the Southaven facility, is no longer there. The administrator’s name was listed on federal paperwork in 2020 and 2021, but someone who answered the phone at Diversicare of Southaven said they have a new administrator who’d been on the job several months.

Prior to the broadcast of this story, the corporate spokesperson said she didn’t have details, nor could she confirm a timeline of the previous administrator’s departure.

As far as how Diversicare used its incentive money, in federal filings, the publicly traded company said it was “closely tracking its use of funds” to “demonstrate compliance.

The NewsChannel 3 Investigators also reached out to the associations that represent nursing homes in all three MidSouth states, as the groups have been very vocal about funding for long-term care facilities during the pandemic. However, we never heard back.