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Pa. court orders Health Department to give PennLive reporter records regarding troubled nursing home chain

Patriot-News - 1/3/2020

A Commonwealth Court panel Friday ordered the Pennsylvania Department of Health to hand over to a PennLive reporter disputed records concerning the shift in ownership of a troubled nursing home chain.

The record sought by reporter Daniel Simmons-Ritchie involve the transfer of ownership of 35 nursing homes from Golden Living to several new operators. Simmons-Ritchie requested the documents as part of PennLive’s ongoing investigation into nursing home care in Pennsylvania which included the series “Failing the Frail.”

The Commonwealth Court ruling, penned by Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer, comes in response to pleas by the new operators of the former Golden Living homes to keep that information private.

They appealed to Jubelirer’s court after the state Office of Open Records ordered disclosure of the requested information in December 2018.

Simmons-Ritchie sought copies of all correspondence between the Health Department and the facility owners regarding to the changes of ownership starting from Jan. 1, 2016. He requested all agreements and contracts, including leases, regarding the ownership changes for the same time frame, along with correspondence to and from several department officials, including Acting Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine.

Golden Living was a focus of investigation not only for PennLive. In 2015, the state attorney general’s office sued the chain over conditions at 25 of its 35 homes in Pennsylvania. State investigators accused the Texas-based chain of chronic understaffing, poor care, and falsifying records to deceive state inspectors.

The crux of the Commonwealth Court fight over Simmons-Ritchie’s requests was the insistence of the new operators that most of the information he sought involved confidential propriety information and trade secrets which are not subject to public release under the state’s Right to Know Law.

Jubelirer found those records must be handed over to the reporter because the new providers didn’t prove their release “would result in a substantial competitive injury” in the nursing home business.

The Commonwealth Court judges did disagree with the Office of Open Records on one point. Jubelirer found that Simmons-Ritchie’s request for the correspondence to and from Levine and her subordinates was not specific enough to satisfy the requirements of the RTKL. So, for the time being at least, those records do not have to be surrendered.

Opponents of the Simmons-Ritchie records requests can appeal the Commonwealth Court opinion to the state Supreme Court.

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