WRAL Investigates

Britthaven owner a powerful player in elder-care business

Posted March 3, 2010 6:06 p.m. EST
Updated March 3, 2010 6:55 p.m. EST

— The parent company of a Chapel Hill nursing home under investigation following the death of a patient last month is a major donor to state political candidates.

The State Bureau of Investigation and the Medicaid Investigations Unit of the Attorney General's Office are looking into possible wrongdoing at Britthaven of Chapel Hill. Nine Alzheimer's patients there tested positive for strong pain-control drugs that they weren't supposed to be receiving, and one later died.

Kinston-based Britthaven operates 33 nursing homes across North Carolina, and it is a powerful player in the elder-care business.

Campaign finance records examined by WRAL Investigates show employees of Britthaven and its parent company, Hillco Ltd., gave more than $175,000 to state political candidates during the 2004 and 2008 elections, including Gov. Beverly Perdue, former Gov. Mike Easley and Attorney General Roy Cooper.

Robert O. Hill Jr., the son of Hillco's and Britthaven's founder, accounted for $65,000 in political contributions, records show.

"It's very crass. They buy access – that's one thing – but they also want to buy the policy itself," said Bob Hall, executive director of campaign watchdog group Democracy North Carolina.

Hall helped research a 1996 series of reports on nursing home political influence that included the Hill family of Kinston. Now, he is intrigued by Britthaven President Randy Uzzell, who gave $4,000, the maximum allowable individual contribution, to three 2008 gubernatorial candidates – Perdue, former State Treasurer Richard Moore and former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory.

"You know it's not because they have a particular affinity to that candidate," Hall said, noting that Perdue and Moore are Democrats and McCrory is a Republican. "They want to have an investment in the winner. So, they're betting on several horses."

"They're in the business of making money and having legislation passed that would enable them to make more money," said Steve Gugenheim, an attorney who has filed several lawsuits against Britthaven facilities for questionable care.

"We've had cases involving falls. We've had cases involving pressure ulcers. We've had cases involving infections," Gugenheim said.

A 1996 case at Britthaven of Chapel Hill in which a patient died after getting caught in her restraints drew a $500,000 fine and lawsuit.

Most of the suits against Britthaven have been resolved, but confidentiality agreements prevent the release of any settlement details.

According to Medicare, the quality of care varies widely in Britthaven nursing homes. Four boast the top rating on the state's five-star system, but 12, including the Chapel Hill facility, hold one- or two-star ratings.

Gugenheim calls the low ratings a "red flag," but Uzzell said his company focuses on the care and safety of nursing home residents.

"Would we like to have all of our homes rated among the highest? Yes, but the system makes that virtually impossible to achieve," Uzzell said in a statement to WRAL Investigates.

The rating system grades all facilities on a curve, so even well-run facilities receive fewer than five stars, he said.

Uzzell also makes no apology for his political contributions.

"I hope that my involvement helps qualified candidates present a clear message to the voters, allowing an informed choice," he said. "I take issue with the notion that making political contributions, even to people of different parties, equates to anything improper."