New York’s long-term care watchdog and a local lawmaker called for an investigation of the Brooklyn nursing home where comedian Elayne Boosler’s Jewish cousin was sold a pricey Christian funeral package before landing in the wrong cemetery.
“How and why was a guardianship obtained without the knowledge of the family?” asked Deirdre Garrett-Scott, director of the Long Term Care Ombudsman Program at the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York (CIDNY), which is funded by the federal government and state Department of Health to advocate for patients.
“This sounds absurd and possibly fraudulent, and the Department of Health and attorney general should be looking into how this happened,” she added.
Garrett-Scott’s comments followed THE CITY’s report detailing Boosler’s harrowing tale of her elderly Jewish cousin Dorothea Buschell, who died April 13, apparently of COVID-19, at the Hamilton Park Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Bay Ridge.
Buschell was sent to the wrong cemetery, and her estate was charged more than $15,000 for a Christian burial, although she already had a paid-for family plot at a Jewish cemetery on Long Island.
While Boosler stressed she and another cousin, Harriet Saltzman, remained active in Buschell’s life, court records show Hamilton Park petitioned Brooklyn Supreme Court for a guardianship on behalf of “Dorothea Buschell, an Incapacitated Person” on June 25, 2015. New York Guardianship Services was appointed guardian on Oct. 21, 2015.
Two years later, an employee of Guardianship Services, David Blau, signed a $15,000 pre-need burial document on Buschell’s behalf, charging her estate for a lengthy list of items — including a mahogany casket, clergy, rosaries and a crucifix.
Boosler told THE CITY neither she nor Saltzman knew about the guardianship. The nursing home staff never told them on the phone or during Boosler’s last visit to Buschell in 2018, which would have been “the perfect opportunity for them to bring up the guardianship, the pre-need, anything,” Boosler said. “They did not say a word.”
After THE CITY’s story ran, Boosler said Saltzman finally reached Blau, “whose answer to all of this when she posed it to him was ‘It all has to go through the courts.’ They want to be sued.”
Blau has not returned calls for comment, though Guardianship Services blamed the nursing home for “unacceptable negligence.”
Richard J. Brum, an attorney for the Allure Group, which owns Hamilton Park nursing home, said he was unable to provide any details regarding residents “for privacy reasons,” in accordance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
The Health Department referred all calls to the state Attorney General Letitia James’ office, which said it was unable to comment on specific nursing home investigations. A source confirmed, however, that James’ office was investigating various complaints at a number of nursing homes across the state.
“All of these nursing homes need to be investigated,” said Councilmember Justin Brannan, whose district includes the Hamilton Park Nursing & Rehabilitation Center.
“While the entire planet has been focused on ensuring our hospital system could handle the COVID-19 crisis, a perfect storm has been quietly brewing inside a different facility altogether: our city’s nursing homes.”
The state Department of Health recently released new and more detailed data showing that as of May 3, Hamilton Park had logged 12 COVID-presumed deaths at the facility.
Garrett-Scott pointed out that as of March 4, the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) ordered state nursing home inspectors to suspend routine inspections and focus on COVID. The state has also barred families from visiting nursing homes since March 13.
“Since we have been declared non-essential workers, we have not been able to get into these facilities,” Garrett-Scott noted. Prior to the order, ombudsmen had round-the-clock access to the homes. They may now only investigate by telephone, which hinders their ability to check on residents with cognitive or physical disabilities.
“There were a few places we tried to contact that took a few days of constant, continuous calling before we were able to get through,” Garrett-Scott said. “I can only imagine what family members are going through.”
Garrett-Scott also pointed out that the lack of federal and state oversight during the pandemic has made it difficult for families to get clear information about the status and location of loved ones.
In particular, she noted that nursing homes and long-term care facilities were now permitted to transfer residents “with symptoms of a respiratory infection or confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 to another facility.”
Other federal and state waivers allow doctors to use telehealth technology to care for long-term care residents, rather than having to treat patients in person. CMS also suspended paperwork requirements to allow physicians to issue verbal, rather than written, medical orders.
“Vulnerable people were already being taken advantage of on a daily basis at long-term care facilities, and the pandemic has allowed the situation to escalate,” Garrett-Scott said. “Coronavirus opened a Pandora’s box.”
As for Boosler, she said she had no other option but to hire a lawyer. She hoped her cousin’s story would serve as a “cautionary tale and a head’s up for families” of those in long-term care, even as she tried to keep her trademark sense of humor.
“I am incensed and outraged,” Boosler said. “Which I think was also a hit for the Ventures in the ‘60s.”
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