A Washington-based health care management company has negotiated a lease for Rock Springs’ troubled nursing home.

EmpRes Healthcare Management is applying for its license and expects to take over operations May 19, according to the nursing home’s administrator.

“It was like 1,000 pounds lifted off of my shoulders,” Administrator Melissa Elliott said, of learning the news late Tuesday. “It’s definitely what we’ve been waiting for.”

The news was greeted by applause and happy tears from staff and residents, she added.

Former operator, Utah's Deseret Health Group, announced last week it was closing its facilities in Rock Springs and Saratoga. The company stopped paying for medical supplies, food and wages in violation of federal rules requiring 60-days notice of closure. The state suspended Deseret’s license and assumed a temporary management role in both Saratoga and Rock Springs.

About 18 of the nearly 60 residents were relocated before Gov. Matt Mead stayed the exodus Monday. All of the facility’s approximately 90 staff remain, Elliott said.

The state is expected to issue a provisional license to EmpRes and hand over operational reins by Tuesday, said Wyoming Department of Health spokeswoman Kim Deti.

Starting next week, Elliott expects to begin bringing back residents who want to return.

“We’re going to hang tight and, next week, we’ll work on rebuilding our census back up and moving forward,” Elliott said. “We appreciate everything our community did for us — private citizens, companies, everything the state did.”

EmpRes is an employee-owned company founded in 1997. It operates nearly 60 licensed nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, assisted living and retirement communities and other health service agencies in Nevada, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

“We have been looking to expand our services into Wyoming for some time, and while this is less than an ideal way, we’re excited,” said Dale Patterson, company CEO.

EmpRes tried to assume operation of the business the last time it was available, but Deseret acquired it instead. EmpRes officials haven’t seen the facility since then, and so the first priority will be making sure it has enough staff to properly care for residents, Patterson said.

“We know that Deseret was financially in trouble. It probably means they were doing things on the skinny side,” Patterson said.

The company has signed a five-year lease with Ventas Realty, with two options to extend the lease to five years. EmpRes generally signs longer leases, but Patterson hopes to put pressure on the landlord to build a new facility to better care for residents.

Meanwhile, Montana-based Health Management Services is expected to take over the Saratoga facility, according to Anita Mills, the nursing home’s administrator.

“He’s going to be here late tomorrow … they are going to call it Saratoga Care Center,” Mills said. “It’s not signed yet, but they are moving like it’s going to happen.”

Health Management Services rescues ailing health care facilities and rehabilitates them, according to Joe Rude, the company’s president and CEO. The company manages 30 facilities in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming.

Rude did not return a Wednesday afternoon voicemail seeking comment.

The Saratoga facility has just 12 of its 27 residents remaining. The nursing home employs about 30 people.

The state has created accounts to ensure workers receive back pay, Deti said. She did not have a dollar amount, but said she expected employees would receive checks in the next few days.

Deseret founder Jon Robertson was sentenced in June 2014 to 366 days in prison after he pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return in 2003, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Utah. He was serving as president of Infinia, another Utah-based company that operated nursing homes. 

He transferred large sums of Infinia money through unofficial, non-salary payments to personal bank accounts and other accounts in his control, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Robertson did not report this money as income to the IRS or to Infinia.

He was forced to pay $150,000 in restitution to the IRS as part of his sentence.

A potential nursing home operator must complete a license form to open or buy a facility in Wyoming. That license form asks whether the owner or operator has ever had a license to operate a health care facility denied, suspended, revoked or terminated. Deti said Deseret's application shows the company answered no to that question.

Deti said facilities that serve patients with Medicare or Medicaid must also go through federal approvals.

The Wyoming Attorney General's Office did not respond to a late afternoon message requesting comment about the pursuit of civil and criminal charges.

Follow reporter Tom Dixon on Twitter @DixonTrib.

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