The state Department of Public Welfare has ordered a Palmerton-area assisted living facility to close by Friday and its remaining 26 residents relocated because it has repeatedly failed to correct health and safety violations dating to 2008.
"That facility is in fact closing. Its provisional license was not renewed," said DPW spokesman Michael Race. "We're working with them and local social service agencies to relocate the residents. We expect the closure will be completed by the middle of this month."
The owner of Eastern Comfort Assisted Living facility, at 2941 Cherry Hill Road near Parryville, blamed his staff for the problems, and said he will appeal the order to state court.
"My employees weren't doing their homework, so I've got to suffer for it," Steven J. Miga of Bethlehem said in a telephone interview. "I'm stuck with the headache."
Miga, who also owns assisted living homes in Easton, Allentown and Slatington, said he bought the two-house Palmerton facility, the former Rau assisted living home, seven or eight years ago.
"I didn't do nothing," he said. "I'm never there. They didn't do their job, and now I'm stuck with the problems."
Facility administrator Diane Deemer and her assistant, Sue Sarik, declined to respond to Miga's statements.
Race on Friday said the facility, Eastern Comfort IV and Eastern Comfort V, has been operating under a provisional license – it's second – since January 2009. According to DPW, the violations, many have happened repeatedly, stretch back to October 2008 and include mildew growth and a musty odor; water damage in hallway ceilings and walls; open trash, lack of documentation and other problems.
In June 2008, residents were evacuated from the facility, which was operating on a provisional license due to previous violations, because indoor temperatures had reached 96 degrees during a heat wave. All of the bedrooms had fans, but they just weren't enough, a DPW spokeswoman said at the time. Four of the 44 people evacuated were taken to the hospital.
The state in January 2009 decided to deny Eastern Comfort's application for provisional license renewal and barred new admissions. After more than a year of appeals by Miga, the order to close was handed down by DPW Secretary Harriet Dichter on June 24. A notification letter says Miga has 30 days to appeal to Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg.
Deemer said she found out last week that the place would be closed and that residents would have to find new homes by July 9.
"I'm sick to my heart," she said. Some of the residents, most of whom live with mental disabilities, have lived there since it was owned by Rau, she said.
"Some of them just don't have any other place to live," Sarik said.
Deemer and Sarik sit at the table to talk, but are up and about every few minutes to answer residents' questions, comfort them and offer iced tea or sandwiches.
"We genuinely care about them, and that's what stinks" about the closure, Deemer said.
Some of the residents appear to have little understanding of the looming life-change ahead of them; others are anxious.
On an unannounced visit Friday, both houses of the 72-bed facility look and smell clean. The homes are in a wooded area and connected by a short path. Air conditioners are humming, and fans are on in tidy common rooms, where a few residents lounge on comfy sofas and chairs, watching a television game show; one holds a child's bright plastic toy.
A glass vase holding a handful of red, white and blue flowers, with a small American flag, sits on the table in the immaculate kitchen. The daily menu waffles and orange juice for breakfast, sausage patty, fried potatoes and salad for lunch and bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwiches for supper, with fruit salad for snacks is printed on a whiteboard, along with the day, date, month and year.
In residents' rooms, cardboard boxes sit on beds and floors; one man sits on his bed, picks up a photo, then a figurine. He holds each for a long moment before gently placing them in a box.
Kenny, a slight, older man, wanders through the hall, where he talks softly with Deemer, who hugs him and reassures him he will be OK.
Jeff, 63, ambles into the kitchen, curious about a visitor sitting at the table. Asked where he plans to live when he must move from his home of nine years, he answers without hesitation.
"Right here," he says. "My Dad owns this place."
Jeff's father, who did not own the home, died three years ago, Deemer whispers. He has never been able to accept the loss, she says.
Maryann Musselman, 67, has applied for a subsidized apartment in the Palmer House, Palmerton. But there is a long waiting list.
She's lived at Eastern Comfort for five years, having moved in after a stint in a nursing home. Musselman suffers from emphysema.
"My health is much better now," she says. "I like it here. It's nice."
Musselman is anxious about the change, and not knowing where she will live. She and others are being helped with the change by their caseworkers and by Michael Cohen, a psychiatric rehabilitation worker with the Lehighton-based Program of Wellness, Empowerment and Recovery (POWER).
Musselman's large room is filled with angels, religious figurines and pictures. Sitting on her bed, Musselman cradles her favorite ceramic angel as she gazes around her room.
Unsure of her future, she worries about her angels "I have friends who gave them to me" and says she'll miss the staff and her housemates.
She asks a visitor to pray for her, and for them.
"They are my family," she says.