Amid tense discussions and legal confusion, the state scrambled Thursday to remove residents from three residential-care facilities accused of multiple health and safety violations.
The state Department of Human Services made substantial progress in moving residents from the Sparkman Care Center in Sparkman, the De Queen Residential Care Facility in De Queen and the Camden Family Inn in Camden. Many of the centers' clients, who are mostly mentally ill or retarded, were moved to facilities in Prescott and Hot Springs.
All of the residents in De Queen and Sparkman were moved Thursday, and the 16 who remain in Camden will be moved today, representatives of the Office of Long Term Care said.
Marshall Ney, an attorney with the Little Rock firm Mitchell, Williams, Selig, Gates and Woodyard who represents the facilities' owners, said the state was unduly hasty in moving the residents right away, whether they had good places for them or not.
He accused state officials of declassifying some of the residents as mentally ill so they could be released onto the street and of dropping others off at the Salvation Army, not putting them in other residential-care facilities.
Ray Hanley, director of the Medical Services Division, said the accusations were untrue. Representatives of the state Mental Health Department and the Disability Rights Center were on hand to make sure all of the residents were properly cared for, he said. And since the residents were not institutionalized, any of them who didn't want to go to another residential-care facility didn't have to, Hanley said.
"Two got put up in a motel in Arkadelphia, which will look like the Ritz-Carlton after where they've been," Hanley said.
Inspectors' photographs of the facilities show exposed electrical wires, broken or filthy commodes, infestations of insects and other apparent health or safety violations.
The day's legal salvos started early. Ney called state officials at 8:20 a.m. to tell them he had advised his clients that since the state revoked their licenses, they could be held liable for operating illegally while they wait for the residents to be removed.
"It doesn't appear appropriate that we do keep employees in the facilities and continue to operate the facilities," Ney said later in the day. "If the state did think this was an emergency, they should have thought of this before ... and had a way to get these people out."
State officials briefly thought that the facilities would be closed by noon. Attorney Frank Wills, who represents the state, faxed Ney a letter Thursday morning stating, "No adverse action will be taken as a result of the affected facilities' allowing the residents to remain on premises during this transition."
Ney said he still worried that his clients were not shielded from potential personal liability suits filed by residents or their relatives, but he confirmed late Thursday that the centers remained open and staffed.
Such confusion has proliferated since Pulaski County Chancellor Collins Kilgore decided Wednesday that the state could immediately begin removing residents from the facilities.
Kilgore made the decision about noon but called both parties Wednesday night to tell them he had to recuse himself from the case because he had discovered a conflict of interest: His wife, Priscilla, works for the attorney general's Medicaid fraud division and has been investigating the three facilities.
Mike Hodson, spokesman for the attorney general, confirmed that the division has open and ongoing fraud investigations at the three facilities, owned solely or jointly by Avanell Looney of Sparkman and her son, Joe Alexander of Camden. The division is also investigating a fourth facility, Alternatives Plus in DeWitt, which is co-owned by Looney and Alexander.
Hodson said he could not reveal any details of the investigations, but several sources confirmed that Priscilla Kilgore visited at least one facility to pick up records.
Kilgore's recusal wipes out his decision Wednesday allowing residents to be moved and the temporary restraining order he granted Monday to stop it.
The facilities' owners could have attempted the same legal challenge with a new judge, but Ney said his clients were discouraged by the results of Wednesday's hearing and didn't have the resources or energy to pursue another hearing.
Monday afternoon, the Office of Long Term Care faxed a letter to Alexander notifying him that the license for Alternatives Plus had also been revoked.
Looney said Thursday that she hadn't decided what to do next. She and Alexander have filed requests for an administrative appeal of the state's action against the three facilities, but Ney said it was likely that they won't pursue them. Since the facilities' only source of income comes from the residents, removing the residents takes away the owners ability to pay for the appeals, Ney said.
The state moved about 75 residents Thursday -- all but four of them to other residential-care facilities, Hanley said. Two spent the night in an Arkadelphia hotel, one went to an apartment and another went to a nursing home, he said.
"We're satisfied it's being handled professionally," he said. "Our people have been doing a tremendous job considering the short time we've had."