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Doubts raised about homes' new owner

For weeks now, things at Normal Life's four community homes in Hillsborough County has been anything but normal.

State regulators have threatened to shut down at least one community home where two women died within a week of each other in late February and early March. In response, the facilities' new owner, ResCare Inc., has offered to turn the programs around quickly.

But is that possible for a company that has been gobbling up residential programs for the disabled in recent years? Management says it can, but others doubt it.

And if records from the company's homes in north Florida are any indication, it will be a formidable task.

ResCare, which has been included on Forbes' list of America's 200 best small companies, purchased Normal Life on March 13. Three weeks later, state regulators moved to terminate Medicaid reimbursement at one of Normal Life's seven Tampa Bay facilities, an almost certain precursor to closure.

At an emergency meeting of state health regulators earlier this week, officials announced they would appoint a receiver to manage the Westbrook Community Home in Brandon.

ResCare's executive vice president of operations, Jeffrey M. Cross, asked the health care administration to allow ResCare to make the necessary improvements.

But a review of agency records for ResCare's facilities in Jacksonville and Daytona Beach show the the company, based in Louisville, Ky., has had problems.

In the last two years, ResCare's North Florida intermediate care facilities have been cited for inadequate and poorly trained staff, unsanitary conditions, substandard nursing and physician services, failure to monitor medication levels, "retroactive" and inaccurate record-keeping and failure to provide treatment for its clients.

"It's disgusting," said Marcia Beach, who heads the Tallahassee-based Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities. "They must be putting their money in the corporate headquarters, and not into supporting the folks who are entitled to it."

On average, intermediate care facilities such as those owned by ResCare are paid annually about $70,000 to $80,000 per resident by Florida taxpayers, officials say.

And ResCare, which specializes in providing treatment to the developmentally disabled, has earned enough to keep its shareholders happy. The price of ResCare's stock has more than doubled over the last year.

Last week, the company announced a whopping 63-percent increase _ to a record $105.9-million _ in first quarter revenues this year over last year. The company's net income increased nearly 50 percent.

ResCare is committed, Cross said, to correcting problems identified by state regulators. And staying in compliance is no easy task. Institutions for the developmentally disabled are highly regulated, Cross said, with upwards of 400 separate regulations on the federal Medicaid books.

"It would not be uncommon for providers to sometimes have deficiencies cited," Cross said. "Our position is we are committed to correcting problems or issues identified by any survey. We would work to ensure that any home remains in compliance with the Medicaid program."

In north Florida, some of ResCare's home have improved dramatically. At Claudia Avenue Community Home, for example, the 1997 report was fraught with deficiencies. Rooms needed painting, one resident's room smelled of urine, and a sink was leaking.

By the following year, the home's inspection was nearly spotless.

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