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June 10, 2024

Healthcare firm with three Central Mass. nursing homes to pay $4M over claims of substandard care

A brick building sits behind a parking lot with a green lawn separating it from the street. Photo I Courtesy of Google Maps Fitchburg HealthCare, operated by Woburn-based Next Step Healthcare

A nursing home operator with facilities in Worcester, Fitchburg, and Westborough has agreed to pay a $4-million settlement over claims of substandard patient care and understaffing, according to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office.

Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell reached the settlement with Woburn-based Next Step Healthcare after a years-long investigation into the long-term care management company, marking the attorney general’s largest nursing home settlement to date, according to a Monday press release from the Attorney General’s Office.

Next Step operates 16 nursing facilities throughout the state including The Hermitage Healthcare in Worcester, Fitchburg Healthcare, and Westborough Healthcare.

The multi-million dollar settlement marks an end to the AG Office’s investigation originally sparked by complaints and referrals received from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health alleging substandard care or regulatory violations within the company’s nursing homes

The attorney general alleged Next Step proceeded with staffing reductions in April 2019 even though its facilities were already struggling to maintain adequate staffing levels to meet residents' needs and continued to understaff its facilities despite state regulations determining staffing requirements that went into effect in April 2021. 

This staffing shortage resulted in patient neglect and harm, according to the attorney general. Next Step’s inaction resulted in its facilities’ staffing levels ranking in the bottom 10% of their respective counties.

In addition, the attorney general alleged Next Step violated the Massachusetts False Claims Act, the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, and a state statute protecting elders from abuse and neglect in nursing homes by filing false claims to MassHealth. 

“For years, Next Step prioritized profit over care by failing to adequately staff its nursing homes,” AG Campbell said in the release. “I am proud of my team’s efforts in securing this settlement, the largest of its kind, which will send a message that this conduct will not be tolerated and ensure that Next Step’s facilities comply with staffing requirements moving forward, assuring that vulnerable elderly residents receive the proper care they need.”   

Under the terms of the settlement, Next Step must maintain staffing numbers at state-mandated levels in addition to its monetary penalty.

Of the $4 million Next Step has agreed to pay, $750,000 will be paid to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to be evenly distributed between MassHealth and the Long-Term Care Facility Quality Improvement Fund, a DPH initiative to better care provided to those in long-term care facilities. 

The remaining $3.25 million will be earmarked for staffing improvements over the next three years through recruitment, retention, benefits, bonuses, overtime, wage increases, and other staffing-related initiatives to be overseen by an independent compliance monitor hired at the company’s expense. 

The independent compliance monitor will perform on-site assessments of Next Step’s facilities and submit reports to the AG’s Office every six months.

“We have an obligation to create a safe and caring environment for some of our most vulnerable residents in Massachusetts,” Kate Walsh, Massachusetts secretary of health and human services, said in the release. 

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