Placement services eager to show seniors the way home
Looking for a retirement community, assisted living or nursing home for yourself or a loved one? You’ll find a flock of businesses eager to guide you through the elder housing maze, claiming their local experts can find the perfect place at no charge.
But elder advocates say seniors and their families need to be aware of what they’re getting when they say yes to free senior placement services. These businesses, springing up as entrepreneurs get in on the latest elder-care trend, are unregulated and require no special licensing or training.
They can be opened by anyone with enough cash to put up a website, and the quality varies widely. Some are small local companies run by seasoned professionals who work with seniors face-to-face and take them on facility tours. Others are national online outfits or franchise operations with work-at-home consultants who do business over the telephone and never have set foot in the retirement facilities they’re recommending.
They all get paid the same way: through their network of care facilities that give them commissions, usually 50 to 100 percent of a month’s rent, when seniors move in and stay.
“We are not saying (placement services) are a lot of bad apples. We are just saying consumers need to be cautious,” said David Spiegel, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission who specializes in senior consumers. “Deciding where someone will live is an important decision and they need to approach it with care.”
Spiegel handled a settlement two months ago involving two senior placement companies, both offering franchises, on charges they misled consumers.
One, California-based ABCSP Inc. — whose franchises do business in Florida as Always Best Care — allegedly falsely implied its recommendations were based on personal knowledge of retirement communities, the FTC said. Officials at ABCSP’s corporate office and at a Lake Worth, Fla., franchise location could not be reached for comment.
The other, CarePatrol Inc., said it had care consultants in every state and monitored facilities based on the most recent state inspections, the FTC said. But Chuck Bongiovanni, CarePatrol’s owner and CEO, said the allegations involved a mistake on his website, which he changed, and not his business practices.
“Everyone sees senior placement now as a get-rich-quick scheme,” said Bongiovanni, a former medical social worker who started CarePatrol in Arizona 17 years ago. He sells franchises for $44,500 in 37 states.
Florida’s assisted living regulations, which for years had prohibited “patient brokering” between professionals and care facilities, added an exemption for placement services effective July 1. Prior to that, placement companies had to set up cumbersome consulting or subscription arrangements with housing communities in order to get paid.
“We’ll probably see some significant growth now and more competition,” said Michael Brodie, a 30-year management veteran in the senior housing industry who started Michael Brodie Senior Placement in Coral Springs, Fla., several months ago. As a one-person shop, he tries to give his clients lots of personal attention, including accompanying them on tours and follow-up visits in their new home.
Corporate placement services have many more network communities than Brodie “but probably will give you a list of places and tell you to go visit them. If you work on volume, you provide a different kind of service,” he said.
Missy Day, marketing director for Emeritus Senior Living, said Florida is a very competitive market for care communities trying to keep their beds full, as well as placement services eager to help them do so. “I probably am getting two or three calls a week from vendors who want to sign a referral agreement with us,” she said.
Dina Mazzuca felt she was just getting more frustrated dashing from place to place, searching for the right kind of home for her 88-year-old mother with Alzheimer’s disease. Then she came across an advertisement for Sunshine Senior Placement in Sunrise, Fla.
Arnie Cowan, a former facility administrator who started his seven-employee company five years ago, “took me out personally, like a real estate agent, and showed me places that were compatible with what I needed,” said Mazzuca, of Margate, Fla.
But Eric Carlson, a long-term care expert and directing attorney at the National Senior Citizens Law Center, said that while clients like not having to pay, commissions can make it unclear if an adviser is working for the senior or the facilities paying them.
A Place for Mom, the nation’s largest senior placement service, began a Florida expansion this summer, hiring a team of 16 regional advisers and doubling its referral network to 600 communities statewide. The Seattle-based company, with ads featuring celebrity TV broadcaster Joan Lunden, plans to have served 20,000 Florida families by next June, said CEO Sean Kell.
Kell, who formerly ran the Expedia travel site, was brought in to clean house last year in the wake of a 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning Seattle Times investigation of Washington’s retirement homes. One story on referral services said A Place for Mom, along with other companies, routinely did not check to see if homes had violations and pressed employees to make sales goals.
When he came on board, Kell switched advisers from straight commissions to salaries with bonuses, and required regular facility license verifications and state inspection audits. “Our advisers go visit properties all the time,” said Kell, who works with the largest senior housing providers. “We are transparent about what we do and what we charge.”
In the end, it’s important to know that placement agencies can help families, but families should take the time to select one carefully, said Edith Lederberg, executive director of the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Broward County, Fla.
“Good placement companies know the community,” she said.
©2012 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
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