DANVERS — The New England Homes for the Deaf is one of only two facilities in the nation that offers specialized nursing home care and assisted living for people who are both blind and deaf. But, faced with financial problems, it has had to stop accepting those patients — a decision the director calls "heartbreaking."
At issue is the state reimbursement rate, which Executive Director Emmanuel Ikomi said lags far behind the cost of caring for deaf-blind residents.
Deaf-blind residents require additional staff time and interpreters who are not covered by state reimbursements for nursing home residents, Ikomi said. Even an extra add-on rate is not enough to keep up with the costs, he said, as the deaf-blind population has quadrupled in recent years from four to 16, straining resources and the homes' endowment.
The homes' officials are aware of the irony of not accepting any more deaf-blind residents, since the famous deaf-blind author and activist Helen Keller and her instructor and teacher, Ann Sullivan, were directly responsible for bringing what was then the New England Home for Deaf Mutes from Everett to Danvers in 1925.
Ikomi said he gets calls from all over the country asking him to take people in at the homes, which include independent living apartments, assisted living and nursing home care, all tailored for the deaf and blind. But, he said, "if we do not get the help, we cannot continue to take anymore deaf-blind residents at the home."
The board of trustees, which stopped deaf-blind admissions a few months ago, has put the issue to the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind and asked for more help. An official for the commission could not be reached for comment Friday.
"The state has to recognize that things do cost more," said Thomas Boudrow of Peabody, the homes' chairman, who is deaf.
Boudrow said the commission does give the homes support, but at the same level as when there were just four deaf-blind residents.
"Now, with 16, you would think (it would increase) proportionally, but that hasn't happened," he said.
The homes wound up in financial straits when it built its new nursing facility in 2004, Boudrow said. Unanticipated state requirements drove up the construction cost, he said.
"At the same time, our endowment was hit with the market going down," Boudrow said, "so prices went up, the money we had went down."
With the bigger facility, it took time for the homes to go from 30 to 60 residents, "so income wasn't really supporting what our mortgage was," Boudrow said.
The state was also slow in recognizing that it costs more to care for deaf and deaf-blind people. Interpreters make $65 an hour, and a deaf-blind person also takes up more staff time.
About three years ago, local state lawmakers won a temporary rate increase of $64 per day per resident.
"Their demands are much greater," said state Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers, who said after the Danversport chemical plant explosion, which heavily damaged the homes, lawmakers were able to win a special retroactive reimbursement rate.
"If that amount is not there, we cannot operate," Ikomi said.
Boudrow said Ikomi has done "a fabulous job" since taking over last year in stabilizing the facility's finances and cutting costs, helping to stem losses of $2 million over the prior four years.
"We are actually seeing light at the end of the tunnel," said Boudrow.
Asked if the homes are "running in the black," he said: "With depreciation no, but our cash flow is manageable. But that's with the add-on rate. I have to stress that, because if you take that away, we are in the red a couple million dollars."
The nonprofit reported $5.2 million in revenue with expenses of $4.9 million in 2009, according to its latest tax filings available online.
The New England Homes for the Deaf has had its ups and downs over the years, but the Danversport blast changed a lot for the institution. The homes suffered about $800,000 in damage as a result of the November 2006 chemical plant blast.
The community donated about $400,000 to the rebuilding effort, with the effect, Speliotis said, of putting the homes on the map, and residents were able to move back in after several months.
Three years later, however, rather than repair the signature Italian-style mansion and stone barn, the agency sold them for $800,000 to a local developer who is turning them into luxury condominiums.
The homes got a boost last week when the Verizon Foundation donated $10,000 for video devices that residents can use to call up sign language interpreters, or allow them to make calls using video phones between rooms and the nurses' station.
And overall, Boudrow is optimistic.
"If the state actually continues to give the support that we hope they do," he said, "and Mass. Commission for the Blind comes along and gives us support, then I'm optimistic we are going to have a future that is going to provide the best care for our deaf and deaf-blind residents anywhere in the country."
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DanverSalemNews.