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Chicago Tribune

Hispanic Rest Home Needs Cash Transfusion

By Ofelia Casillas, Tribune staff reporter.

December 12, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

For almost a decade, Roberto Martinez and Miguel Fuentes have slept in beds a few feet apart at the Center Home for Hispanic Elderly, only drawing the curtain between them before bedtime.

It's a solid friendship. They've remained roommates despite hospital stays, Fuentes' fractured speech and Martinez's paralysis.

Over the years, thousands of residents like Martinez, 64, and Fuentes, 74, have found a family in Casa Central's Humboldt Park nursing home--unique in the Midwest for its culturally specific care, offering Spanish-speaking nurses, Latin cafeteria food and dominoes games.

But Casa officials told residents Thursday that their community may not last.

The 22-year-old center is likely to succumb to financial pressures. The decision will be made in January. A closing would scatter its elderly Latino residents and fracture their community bonds, according to Ann Alvarez, Casa Central president and CEO.

Alvarez said the center faces a $500,000 deficit due to the state's decision in July 2002 to cut Medicaid reimbursement rates by 5.9 percent and move in July 2003 to stop state reimbursements for residents temporarily in the hospital.

Alvarez said the Illinois Department of Public Aid vowed Thursday to speed up Medicaid reimbursements, which can take 90 days. But she said that won't solve the financial crisis.

She said that the home cannot survive unless the state reimbursements are increased.

"It's not sustainable. We can't pay the bills. We need relief," Alvarez said, wiping away tears. "If we continue to lose money at the same rate, we have to find a [new] place for our residents."

It would be a shame for the state to lose the Casa nursing home, said Dennis Bozzi, executive director of Illinois Life Services Network, which represents about 250 not-for-profit nursing homes in Illinois, including Casa's.

"As the only Hispanic-owned nursing home organization in Illinois and at least the Midwest region, it's a sad day for Illinois that they have to close," Bozzi said. "It's a pretty rare bird."

Bozzi estimated that half of the state's 830 nursing homes rely mostly on Medicaid. And the majority of nursing homes have a combination of private, Medicare and Medicaid payments, he added.

Bozzi said the average Medicaid reimbursement rate in Illinois is about $90 a day per Medicaid patient, but the actual cost of care can be up to 60 percent more.

And while a handful of states have reduced Medicaid rates in the last two years, cuts are relatively rare because states recognize they are dealing with a "very vulnerable" population, said Barbara Manard, vice president of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. The agency represents nearly 6,000 not-for-profit providers across the country.

"Illinois wins the booby prize for the largest Medicaid rate cut in the last two years," Manard said.

The center's employees, who are devastated by the possible closing, say the nursing home is a setting for Chicago immigrants to return to the Latino culture they left behind decades ago.

"They'd like to spend their final years with people who speak their own language," said Jose Quintana, a Cuban registered nurse. "What we have here is a little island unto itself."

In Room 306 of the Casa nursing home, where Fuentes regularly waters the first plant his wife ever gave him and Martinez has hung Polaroids of his sons' new cars, the fear of parting lingers.

Martinez is from Mexico, Fuentes from Puerto Rico. And while neither has visited the other's native land, they know it now through stories told from across the small room decorated with crucifixes and saintly figurines.

Martinez has the bed closer to the window, from which he watches a blurry television and looks out on the yard. Fuentes spends most of his day resting in a chair or listening to salsa music from his roommate's stereo.

They support each other in the way they can. One time Fuentes fell out of his chair, and his roommate called for a nurse.

Fuentes wakes early. Martinez stays up late to watch Spanish novellas, which his roommate hates.

Whenever Martinez or Fuentes has had to be hospitalized, his roommate safeguards the other's personal items.

"I take care of him," Martinez said. "He takes care of me."

Martinez described Fuentes as quiet, sentimental and simple. Fuentes described Martinez as a gentleman, a person worthy of love.

On Thursday the window's beige curtain was drawn, letting in the afternoon light.

"I'd feel nostalgia leaving here, sentimentalism," Martinez said.

"I wouldn't like leaving, but I'd have to do it and I'd leave sad," Fuentes added.

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