Thomas Taylor, swaddled in a bed of white sheets, flipped off the television and considered his mortality. He has been sick a long time. Multiple sclerosis. He’s not sure how much longer he can hold out, he said, not with the grim news he’d just gotten, not with all of these worries occupying his thoughts.
Taylor, a resident the Washington Home in Northwest Washington, didn’t receive a bad health prognosis. Last week he learned that he and the other residents of the Washington Home, where Thomas has lived for two decades, will have to move out.
“It’s murder to me,” said Taylor, 59. “I really don’t know what I’m going to do. It definitely will put my health at risk. When you have a lot of weight on you, it makes your health worse. It could be fatal — not only for me, but for a lot of other people in here.”
There had been rumors for months that Washington Home officials wanted to sell the property, which splashes across a leafy expanse along Upton Street. More than 100 Medicaid recipients receive care there, and it also serves as the city’s only inpatient hospice facility. Top officials had consistently denied a sale was in the works, families and patients said.
Until last Tuesday, when it became clear the Washington Home as it is now — with its 200 private rooms, rehab facilities and spacious hallways — will be no more.
Nearby Sidwell Friends School, where President Obama and some of Washington’s wealthiest families send their children for an elite education, bought the home and its six acres. Sidwell plans to consolidate its lower school, currently in Bethesda, with its main campus. The purchase price, said Ellis Turner, Sidwell’s associate head of school, was $32.5 million.
In the days that have followed the deal, emotions have run high at the Washington Home, a 127-year-old nonprofit that was a pet charity of former first lady Barbara Bush. People weep in the hallways. Others seethe about inequality.
“You’ve got the most vulnerable, the poorest, the oldest people — and then you have the 1 percenters that want to come in,” said Ivan Mayfield, co-chair of the Washington Home’s family council. “And yes, the home obviously sold to them, but on the flip side, you’re coming in and taking away their home from them to build this exclusive campus that costs $40,000 a year for these kids to go to school.”
Many long-term residents, who have to clear out by the end of 2016, have little idea where they’ll go. Others wonder how the deal started and when. And because Washington Home officials say they don’t plan to buy or build another facility, what will they do with so much money?
Sharon Casey, chairwoman of the Washington Home board of directors, said the sale will free the charity to serve more people. Washington Home plans to focus on in-home hospice care.
“I’m sorry for these particular people and their families,” Casey said. “But we feel we’re going to serve many more people in [poor] communities when we have community-based services in the city rather than in our fortress on Upton Street.”
Turner said Washington Home has more than a year — until December 2016 — to develop individualized plans for the people it serves and also has the option to lease back from Sidwell if the transition isn’t completed when the closing occurs.
“We were assured that the Washington Home and its commitment to its mission to serve those in its community would not be affected,” Turner said of the purchase.
It’s unclear how the land deal began. Sidwell officials say they were evaluating the possibility of buying other properties when Washington Home approached them through a broker, wanting to sell to their neighbors along Wisconsin Avenue. But Washington Home officials say Sidwell approached them.
Casey declined to discuss specifics of how Washington Home will use the financial windfall: “These are confidential discussions that the board is discussing.”
Washington Home’s board of directors began talking about the facility’s long-term strategy about eight years ago. The board found that its endowment was shrinking amid rising medical expenses, Casey said. So officials started looking for a new chief executive, ultimately landing upon Timothy Cox, whom Casey said she liked in part because he had had a history of cutting costs.
Cox had spent more than eight years as the chief operating officer at the Armed Forces Retirement Home, where he instituted sweeping austerity measures in 2004. The hope was to shrink costs by as much as 30 percent within one year, but the cuts sparked a backlash. Several residents filed a federal lawsuit against Cox alleging that those cutbacks adversely affected their “health, welfare and well-being.” The lawsuit settled in 2010.
In 2007, the Government Accountability Office sent a letter to the Pentagon saying veterans at that retirement home “may be at risk,” citing patients with pressure sores and one man who was found with maggots in his wound. Cox disputed the allegations, and a Pentagon investigation found little evidence to substantiate them.
Cox left in 2011 after accepting Washington Home’s offer. It came at a time when that institution also was undergoing a series of changes as it was losing millions of dollars every year, records show. And 20 years out, Casey said, the financial picture was even worse.
Cox did not respond to requests last week for comment.
Turner said the school’s board had been looking for parcels to buy to consolidate its campuses. It considered the site of Fannie Mae, across Wisconsin Avenue, and another nearby lot owned by Washington Home and leased to the U.S. Postal Service.
By last November, Sidwell was looking at the Washington Home land, and by May, rumors had reached residents and their families. When they asked Cox whether there were plans to sell, he said there weren’t, said Mary Mason, who also sits on the family council.
“He promised that the Family Council would be active partners in the dialogue if it appeared that serious consideration was going to be given to moving TWH out of residential care,” Mason wrote in an e-mail to a Washington Home administrator in May.
But that apparently didn’t happen.
“We didn’t want to set off a panic among residents and employees and start a whole cascade of events that would be difficult to reverse if we didn’t make a deal,” Casey said. “Why would we get everyone all worked up?”
That explanation doesn’t sit well with Taylor. This is his home. His life. And he has no say in it. He’ll have to move into a new place, he said, where he probably won’t have his own room.
“I don’t think it’s morally right. I think it’s wrong,” Taylor said. “Smile in your face, and turn a knife in your back.”