Brookdale CEO: Health System Partnerships Can Improve Senior Living Penetration Rates

Senior living penetration rates can rise, provided the industry does a better job of integrating resident care with major health care players.

That’s according to Cindy Baier, CEO of Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD), who on Wednesday spoke about the chance for senior living providers to forge such partnerships in order to grow historically stagnant national penetration rates in many U.S. markets.

“There’s a real opportunity to get upstream and increase [residents’] healthspan by giving them proper nutrition, proper purpose, exercise, all those things,” Baier said during the at the Stephens Nashville Investment Conference in Nashville. “By partnering with payers, hospital systems, with other members of the health care ecosystem, we think we can actually improve penetration [rates].”

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To that end, the Brentwood, Tennessee-based senior living owner and operator is working on “a number of pilots with health systems,” Baier said. Brookdale is the largest senior living provider in the United States, with a portfolio of 794 communities in 45 states as of Sept. 30.

Brookdale didn’t elaborate when reached by Senior Housing News Wednesday on how many pilots are underway or which partners the company is working with. But Brookdale’s willingness to work with other players in the health care landscape is indicative of a larger industry trend, where providers across the spectrum are finding new ways to collaborate with health systems, insurers or hospitals.

The general idea is that health systems can work with senior living communities to improve outcomes and drive down the cost of health care for older adults, many of whom would otherwise turn to the ER for costlier care. In turn, senior living communities can help improve the quality of care for their residents and stand out from their local competitors.

Additionally, Brookdale is cozying up to other large U.S. employers in its effort to improve penetration rates, Baier noted Wednesday. The operator has a large employer group program, through which it aims to explain to other companies how their employees might struggle with trying to take care of their kids and aging parents at the same time.

“What that creates is absenteeism at work [and] employees who are very stressed, who have a low quality of life,” Baier said. “By doing more education there, we think that we’ll be able to change the conversation.”

Workforce retention and career development are also top of mind for Brookdale, as they are for providers across the industry.

The U.S. Department of Labor recently gave the senior living provider its approval for a new national certified nursing assistant (CNA) apprenticeship program, which is set to roll out later this year.

Specifically, Brookdale plans to pilot the program at communities in Chattanooga, Tennessee, early next year. The company will also consider expanding the program into other cities.

Under the program, Brookdale will pair apprentices with mentors, likely for one year. Workers who complete it stand to earn a CNA certificate, and are eligible for up to three pay increases, provided they meet certain milestones.

“Having this Department of Labor stamp of approval allows us to take our associates’ career development and give them on-the-job training as well as classwork to help them,” Baier said. “We can help them become a CNA, we’re also going to help people who want to become nurses achieve their LPN qualification.”

Other ways to improve retention include extending some benefits to part-time workers such as paid time off and pet insurance, and by turning the so-called career ladder into “more of a gentle slope,” Baier said.

“That gives you career progression once you’re in leadership to go from leading a small community to a large community,” she added. “Or if we’ve got a strong ED, we allow them to oversee another community or two … and that gives them a bridge into a district director of operations role.”

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