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State to investigate Tarentum personal care home's closing

| Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, 12:32 a.m.

The operator of a suddenly closed Tarentum personal care home is facing scrutiny from the state and the Allegheny County district attorney.

Officials of the Scranton-based New Hope Personal Care Homes on Thursday ordered the Allegheny Valley Residence closed and its 47 mostly elderly and infirm residents moved out by Friday amid some of the season's most frigid weather.

The last resident was moved out of the building at 416 E. Seventh Ave. by 3:30 p.m., according to Mindy Prager, a nurse's aide at the home for 10 years.

Kait Gillis , press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, which regulates personal care homes, said state law requires a 30-day notice before a personal care home operator closes a home.

She said New Hope officials did that about two weeks ago.

On Thursday, however, New Hope brass called the home's manager, Michelle Isanhart, and said the home had to be closed immediately and the residents moved out.

Isanhart said it was left to her, her 17 staff members and Partners in Placement, an agency that has worked with the home before, to make that happen.

She said New Hope's corporate headquarters did not assist in the effort.

“Citing them is kind of a moot point,” Gillis said. “Right now, the focus is purely on the health and safety of the residents.”

She said DPW personnel at the home on Friday were there to “make sure that everyone was taken care of.”

Agency looking at actions

Gillis said the welfare department's next step will be to investigate the situation and New Hope's actions.

New Hope operates several other personal care homes in Pennsylvania, including St. Mary's Courtyard in Sharpsburg.

“Our team has to look into how that company is structured and what action we can take,” Gillis said. “We are going to take regulatory action if we are able to.”

When New Hope officials contacted DPW about closing the home sooner, Gillis said, “They were unable to pay the salaries, they were unable to pay for food, so they had to close immediately.”

The home's employees said vendors stopped making deliveries of supplies, including food, because bills were not paid. Isanhart said on Thursday that the company provided money for the staff to go out and buy food.

Gillis said New Hope would not reimburse residents who paid to stay at the home for the final week of January.

However, she said, DPW would pay the residents' fees for the week at their new locations. The amount, about $12,700, will come out of a fund DPW maintains from fines paid by personal care home operators for violations, Gillis said.

In addition to action by DPW, New Hope and owner/president Ronald Halko could face more serious consequences.

Mike Manko, spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, said Zappala was dispatching two of his detectives to the home on Friday to speak with Allegheny Valley Residences managers, Isanhart and her assistant, Bridget Benton.

“The district attorney is very concerned about how this situation unfolded,” Manko said. “When you are talking about evicting residents from a personal care home, you're talking about human beings, not widgets.”

Manko would not characterize the detectives' trip to Tarentum as a criminal investigation.

“I wouldn't go that far, but we're looking into it,” he said.

Confrontation over pay

On Friday, employees — most of them angry and emotionally distraught at having to quickly move people they had cared for and become fond of — took an action of their own.

About a dozen women confronted Cameron Halko, chief financial officer of New Hope Personal Care Homes and son of Ronald Halko, when he arrived early in the afternoon to issue their paychecks.

They lashed out at him verbally and blocked him from leaving Isanhart's small office, at one point pushing him back into his chair when he stood up to leave.

They demanded answers about the situation and adamantly refused to accept personal checks for their net wages, instead of the usual payroll checks with stubs listing withhold taxes and other items.

“They just had a blowout, and told him what we wanted,” said Eileen DeSantis of Tarentum, a nurse's aide at the home for 15 years. “We don't want a ‘rubber' check. We had a check bounce about six months ago.

“He claims they put the money in the bank this morning, and he has to check online to see if it went through,” said Mindy Prager, a 10-year nurse's aide, who verbally lambasted Halko face-to-face.

Cash compensation

The employees were not shy about voicing their mistrust of Halko and got him to agree to drive to the bank and draw out cash to pay them. One of the employees, Prager's younger sister and fellow aide, Jessica, went along for the ride, they said, to make sure he returned.

After about 90 minutes of listening to employees and calculating the wages, Halko walked out of the home with Jessica Prager and down East Seventh Avenue.

He refused to answer questions from reporters who followed him down the street, only saying “No comment” before getting into a late-model black Audi sedan and driving away.

Mindy Prager later confirmed that all the employees were paid in cash.

“We all hope that he pays the (payroll) taxes,” she said, claiming that he promised that would be done.

She said that when the employees told him the company didn't care about the effect of the decision on their lives or the residents and expressed their outrage about the pay situation, “(Halko) said ‘You guys are not the only ones not getting paid, I'm not getting paid. I'm always the last one getting paid.' ”

Some employees at the St. Mary's home in Sharpsburg said a similar confrontation occurred there with Ronald Halko when they were told the Friday before Christmas that they wouldn't be getting paid.

A reporter's calls to New Hope's headquarters seeking comment on Friday afternoon were not returned.

Final goodbyes

Meanwhile, the tearful goodbyes between residents and the home's staff continued.

About seven of the staff members stayed overnight at the home and had a “pajama party” with the remaining residents.

“We stayed last night, all night, just to have more time with these people,” said Amber Petruny a nurse's aide. “And we weren't being paid for that.”

Petruny wept and hugged resident Ruth Stanley as Stanley, using a walker, made her way to a car waiting to take her to another home.

“Thanks for helping me,” Stanley said.

“Goodbye, Ruth; I love you,” Petruny replied.

It was even more emotional as the aides took turns embracing Irene Halowski as she left.

“Irene was just one of those you could joke around with,” Mindy Prager said.

Halowski and the other aides smiled when Prager continued, “She would always whack you with her cane and say, ‘I'm keeping an eye on you.' ”

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reachedat 724-226-4675

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