Five Chicago nursing homes run by Symphony Care Network are among the top 25 in Illinois for coronavirus cases and deaths, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of state data.
The Lincolnwood-based chain — which operates 29 nursing homes in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan — has had 147 coronavirus deaths and 1,016 coronavirus cases involving residents and workers, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health.
“Symphony was tragically unprepared to deal with any kind of communicable disease and even more tragically unprepared to deal with this deadly communicable disease called COVID-19,” says Steven Levin, an attorney who has sued Symphony and other nursing home operators over coronavirus deaths.
But Dr. Alexander Stemer, who leads Symphony’s COVID-19 task force, says dealing with the threat of the coronavirus has been a huge challenge.
“This is a disease that fights back,” says Stemer, who is an infectious diseases expert. “An incredible burden is placed on the facilities. We have done so much more than was being done four, five, six months ago.”
As is the case with many health care operators, Symphony appears to be struggling financially in the face of the pandemic. Invesque, a landlord for 16 Symphony facilities, is reducing its investment in the chain.
“The pandemic has taken a meaningful toll in the operations of the Symphony portfolio, including reduced occupancy and increased operating expenses,” Invesque CEO Scott White said in a Nov. 12 call with financial analysts.
One financial hurdle, a company spokeswoman says, is that the state of Illinois owes Symphony $30 million for Medicaid care going back to 2010.
In April, Symphony of Joliet was one of the first nursing homes to suffer a major outbreak of the coronavirus. Twenty-four residents and two workers died in the outbreak, which the company blamed on a maintenance worker who became a “super-spreader” while setting up dining tables in rooms. The worker died of the disease.
As a result, company officials said they began checking temperatures of workers and residents and requiring employees to wear protective clothing.
Symphony hasn’t reported any more COVID-19 deaths at its Joliet long-term facility.
Despite being categorized as long-term facilities, Stemer says Symphony’s nursing homes in Chicago don’t operate that way. They serve acute rehabilitation patients, which means there’s frequent turnover of patients coming in and leaving, making infection control more difficult, Stemer says. He says many residents have medical problems that put them at high risk of dying from the coronavirus. When they arrive from a hospital, they’re quarantined for two weeks.
The company is testing staff members twice a week for the virus, according to Stemer, and residents once a week, but it can take at least five days to get results.
Many of Symphony’s facilities are in communities with high infection rates, Stemer says. Employees living in those areas can get the coronavirus, go to work without having symptoms and spread the disease before their tests come back positive, he says.
He says Symphony’s staff has been under “incredible stress.”
But he says there’s a reason to be optimistic: Eli Lilly and Co. has developed a monoclonal antibody therapy for the coronavirus, and Symphony was the first nursing-home company to participate in clinical trials.
Stemer says Lilly officials have assured him Symphony “will be at the front of the line” when the new drug is available, which he hopes will be in a few weeks.
Symphony is now dealing with coronavirus outbreaks at four of its facilities, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
For the entire year, through Friday, Symphony’s South Shore, Lincoln Park, Midway, Morgan Park and Symphony at 87th Street nursing homes are in the top 25 for both cases and deaths in Illinois, according to the state’s data. Symphony at Midway is ranked sixth in the state in the number of cases, South Shore is ninth, Lincoln Park 10th, Morgan Park 11th and Symphony at 87th Street is 19th.
Symphony disputes the state’s reported totals at its facilities. A company spokeswoman says Symphony had 15 fewer deaths and 230 fewer cases at those five facilities than the state health department reported.
The Illinois Department of Public Health has reported that, over the past year, it conducted six investigations into Symphony nursing homes. The state found violations ranging from employees not washing their hands to the failure of workers at Symphony at Midway to protect a resident from falling out of a window to his death. None of the investigations involved the coronavirus.
Only eight of the 25 nursing homes with the most coronavirus cases in Illinois managed to avoid new outbreaks in the past month, state records show. The state-run Ludeman Development Center in Park Forest had the most reported coronavirus cases in Illinois, 263, according to the data.
In May, a Sun-Times investigation found the lowest-rated nursing homes in Cook County had fared the worst to that point in COVID-19 deaths.
Symphony’s South Shore and Morgan Park nursing homes have one star out of five in Medicare’s rating system. So does the company’s Bronzeville facility, which had 17 coronavirus deaths and 64 coronavirus cases this year, according to the state.
“I can’t honestly say they are worse than others, but it’s an extremely low bar,” Levin says.
Symphony is a family-run business. Robert Hartman founded the company in 1978 at the age of 22 when he bought a South Side nursing home, which is now called Symphony of Bronzeville. His son David Hartman joined the company in 1997, working his way up from housekeeping to chief executive officer of Symphony Care Network.
David Hartman and Robert Hartman have been regular contributors to political campaigns, including $5,000 that Robert Hartman gave to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s gubernatorial campaign in 2018.
The nursing home industry has a lot of clout in Springfield. Since 2018, the industry’s lobbying groups have given more than $1 million to campaign committees controlled by the state Democratic party and House Speaker Michael Madigan, records show.
Last year, Pritzker gave nursing homes a $240 million funding increase, and this spring he signed a temporary emergency order that made it harder to sue nursing homes over coronavirus infections at the facilities.
Nursing home owners say the governor didn’t do enough, though, by not also providing them with testing and equipment. They say other states are doing more to support nursing homes than the Pritzker administration. The governor of Wisconsin recently pledged $80 million to support nursing homes in his state until the end of the year. In Indiana, 1,300 National Guard members were deployed earlier this month to work in nursing homes.
“I don’t think Illinois is giving the finance assistance that is so needed,” Stemer says.
Levin says Symphony and other nursing homes are blaming others for their own “unpreparedness” for dealing with this coronavirus.
“They blame the government, they blame plaintiffs’ lawyers, they say they don’t have enough money,” he says. “They never look to themselves.”
Paul Gaynor, an attorney and advocate for nursing homes, says some lawyers have been quick to sue homes over the virus. Illinois nursing home companies have been been hit with at least 21 coronavirus-related lawsuits, says Gaynor, who wants the governor to reinstate his emergency order, making it harder to file such suits.
“This second-guessing is literally happening while we’re trying to protect the residents and do the best we can to provide the services that we provide,” says Gaynor, whose law firm G&R Public Law and Strategies LLC also represents the Chicago Sun-Times.