Two months after state health officials ordered the owner of five San Fernando Valley homes for the disabled to correct health and safety problems or be shut down, three have closed.
It's not because the state is unhappy, but because the proprietors are running out of money.
Eleven disabled clients now live in the two homes in Chatsworth that are still open, Mary Williams, owner of New Start Inc., says. Since the state issued its ultimatum, eight of the 19 quadriplegics who lived in New Start homes have moved elsewhere.
Although a report on conditions at the two homes will not be completed for a week, health officials indicated Friday that enough progress has been made to permit the facilities to remain open.
"My sense is there has been substantial progress," said Bud Pate, a Los Angeles County Health Services Department supervisor.
But even if the state gives New Start more time to complete the improvements, the remaining homes may also close, said Williams, who founded the company in 1984 to provide quadriplegics with an alternative to living in hospitals or with relatives.
In October, New Start's board of directors ordered Williams to liquidate the privately owned company because members said they could not afford to make the improvements necessary to obtain a license and still show a profit, she said.
The board's decision came shortly after the state ordered New Start to build more emergency exits, widen paths, improve the nutritional program and install expensive backup electrical generators in case of a power failure.
Williams, former director of Northridge Hospital Medical Center's rehabilitation unit, has been struggling ever since to keep the company from going under.
She said she and her husband have sold their West Hills home to raise money to buy out some of the investors and finance the improvements ordered by the state. Thus far, the improvements and additional staff salaries have cost more than $50,000, she said.
"I've developed very close relationships with our clients," she said. "That's why I can't give them up." New Start's clients are paralyzed from the neck down and breathe through respirators. The company has been allowed to care for them without a license because state regulations governing such homes are still in draft form.
But after inspections in September disclosed the health and safety problems, Medi-Cal officials threatened to cut off payments and transport the residents by ambulance to a hospital. Medi-Cal pays New Start an average of $260 per day to provide 24-hour nursing care for each client.
To protest being transferred, a contingent of wheelchair-bound residents showed up in Los Angeles Superior Court for the September hearing on the issue.
Joseph Blazevich, who spent six years living in the intensive care unit of a hospital after being injured in a motorcycle accident, was among those in court.
"No way would I go back to the hospital," Blazevich said of the protest. "There, it was breakfast at 7 every morning, in the chair by 8, lunch at 12, and they kept you up until 3 with no choice of going back to bed."
In the one-story home on Mayall Street where Blazevich now lives, he says he is free to enjoy the fire that burns in the fireplace on stormy afternoons or nap when he wants.
Despite that kind of freedom, Blazevich and other New Start clients say the past two months have been difficult, not only because of the uncertainty of New Start's status, but also the cacophony of construction.
Daryl (D.J.) Jackson, 21, who was paralyzed in an accident when he was 8, had to drop his anthropology class at Pierce College because he was unable to study with all the hammering and sawing.
"It will be worth it if we get to stay here," said Jackson, who lives in the Bermuda Street home.
Some of the residents also find the state regulations restrictive.
John Wile, a 23-year-old who inexplicably became paralyzed while taking a shower in January, particularly objects to the regulations regarding nutritional standards. Inspectors determined that New Start's meal plans were not structured enough, Pate said.
Attorneys for New Start and Medi-Cal officials reached the agreement that gave the company 60 days to comply with the draft regulations or at least make substantial progress toward that end.
The agreement stipulated that New Start would provide one-on-one staffing in case of fire unless the fire marshal certifies that emergency electrical generators have been installed. The generators, installed in the two homes last week, cost $26,000, Williams said. The extra staffing cost the company an additional $10,000 to $15,000 per month, she said.
Williams said New Start has been losing money ever since it went to court. In addition to receiving the Medi-Cal reimbursements, the company charges its clients $350 per month for room and board.