Conditions at nursing homes in nearby Rome were so horrendous that residents were near starvation, the United States Attorney's Office said Monday after the operator, George D. Houser, 64, of Sandy Springs, was sentenced to federal prison.
Houser, assisted by his wife—Rhonda Washington Houser, 49, also of Sandy Springs—operated the Mount Berry and Moran Lake nursing homes in Rome and a third home in Brunswick between July 2004 and July 2007. The two Rome nursing homes each housed about 100 residents.
Authorities say in that three-year period, Houser billed Medicare and Georgia's Medicaid program about $41 million. He was paid $32.9 million based on his certification that he was providing nursing home residents a safe and clean environment, nutritional meals and medical care, according to the press release.
But U.S. District Judge Harold L. Murphy in Houser's April bench trial found evidence of “a long-term pattern and practice of conditions at [Houser’s] nursing homes that were so poor, including food shortages bordering on starvation, leaking roofs, virtually no nursing or housekeeping supplies, poor sanitary conditions, major staff shortages and safety concerns, that, in essence, any services that [Houser] actually provided were of no value to the residents.”
How would you react if you found your loved one living in those conditions? Tell us in the comments.
The judge gave George Houser a 20-year sentence to be served in federal prison following his conviction for conspiring with his wife to defraud Medicare and Medicaid by billing for "worthless services" in the operations of the three nursing homes. Houser also was ordered to pay $6,742,807.88 in restitution to Medicaid and Medicare, and $872,515 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service.
"Senior citizens in nursing homes are among our most vulnerable citizens," said U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates in a statement. "This defendant stole millions of dollars in Medicare funds to fund his luxurious lifestyle, while the nursing home residents entrusted to his care went without food or medicine."
The couple was indicted in 2010. Rhonda Houser, 49, in December pleaded guilty to misprision, a felony that includes neglect, but has not yet been sentenced.
Families, staff and vendors of the Housers' nursing homes had made several complaints to the Georgia Department of Human Resources' Office of Regulatory Services. Although Houser had many opportunities to correct the deficiencies, the state closed all three nursing homes in 2007, according to the press release.
"[Houser] was well aware that ongoing jeopardy conditions existed at the nursing homes during this time," the court found. "Rather than make a good faith effort to remedy the glaring issues impacting the residents’ health and welfare, the evidence shows that [Houser] chose instead to divert significant nursing home funds for his real estate development ventures and for other personal expenses, and that [Houser] intentionally attempted to cover up and conceal from the surveyors the nursing homes’ issues and his diversion of funds."
A state surveyor who inspected Moran Lake in late May 2007 testified the heat, flies, filth and stench made for an environment best described as “appalling” and “horrendous.”
Authorities say Houser diverted more than $8 million in Medicare and Medicaid funds to his personal use, spending more than $4.2 million on real estate for a hotel complex he had planned to build in Rome. While he also had plans to develop hotels in Atlanta and Brunswick, Houser bought his ex-wife a $1.4 million house in Atlanta and instead of paying her alimony, paid her a salary as a nursing home employee, though she never worked at any of the homes. Houser also used the nursing homes’ corporate bank accounts for personal expenses, such as Mercedes-Benz automobiles, furniture and vacations, the release says.
Prosecutors say evidence revealed several deficiencies at Houser's nursing homes, including:
Inadequate staffing: Houser failed to maintain a nursing staff that was sufficient to take proper care of the residents. Staffing shortages started plaguing the homes after Houser started writing bad paychecks to his employees, which resulted in numerous staff resignations. Houser also withheld health insurance premiums from his employees, but sometimes let the insurance lapse for non-payment, leaving many employees with large unpaid medical bills for surgery and treatment. The payroll and insurance problems, and unpaid garnishments, prompted many employees to seek work elsewhere and discouraged new applicants.
Inadequate Physical Environments: The roofs in two of the homes were so leaky that employees used 55-gallon barrels and plastic sheeting to catch and divert rainwater. The leaks worsened over time, but Houser never replaced the roofs, nor did he repair or replace broken air conditioning and heating units. Fiberglass ceiling tiles would become saturated with water until they fell out of the ceiling, occasionally on residents’ beds. The residents kept their windows open to vent the foul odors in the homes, but flies, other insects, and rodents easily entered the homes through ill-fitting screens and doors. The insect problems were aggravated by mounds of rotting garbage, which piled up around the dumpsters near the homes because Houser failed to pay the trash collection services. The moisture and inability to control the humidity in the homes gave rise to rampant mold and mildew growth.
Failure to pay vendors: The Medicare and Medicaid programs require nursing homes to provide sufficient dietary, pharmaceutical, and environmental service to care for their residents’ needs. Houser failed to provide these services, in part by failing to pay food suppliers and vendors of pharmacy and clinical laboratory services, medical waste disposal, trash disposal, and nursing supplies, and in part by failing to repair washing machines and dryers, water heaters, air conditioners, and leaking roofs. The nursing homes suffered continual food shortages, and employees spent their own money to buy milk, bread, and other groceries, so that residents would not starve, but the employees were rarely reimbursed by Houser. Employees also bought nursing supplies for the residents and cleaning supplies for the homes, and they regularly had to wash the residents’ laundry in laundromats or their own homes. One nursing home resident testified that residents used to pass the time by making bets on which service or utility would be the next to be cut off for nonpayment.
What do you think of Houser's sentence? Was it just? How much prison time should his wife get? Tell us in the comments.