And the Long-Term Care Newsmaker of the Year is ...

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James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

There once was a time when a journalist covering long-term care might hope for a big story every week or two. That time is not now.

We have never had a newsier year. Changes or threats on the regulatory, legislative and political fronts. Funding and other political issues, as well as staffing challenges — they all dominated the conversation.

And heading toward 2018, there's no signs of a slowdown. But before we look too far ahead, let's get down to the discussion of the 2017 LTC Newsmaker of the Year.

First, some runners-up:

•  Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, M.D. — At first, providers were buoyant: A fellow healthcare professional running the department that oversees everything from rules to payments? Who could ask for more?

As it turns out, anyone who wants a cabinet member to act above board and show better judgment than ill-advisedly using hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of airplanes and rides and sticking taxpayers with the tab, that's who.

Ah, dear Dr. Price, we hardly knew you during your less-than-10-months in the spotlight.

•  Brookdale Senior Living President and CEO Andy Smith — Everyone was interested when Brookdale revealed plans to become the first national LTC brand. Since then, there have been rocky times and struggles integrating some major acquisitions. Now, the betting money is that someone will buy the chain and split it up.

Let's give Smith some more time to figure out his place in history.

•  Paul Ormond, former CEO of HCR ManorCare — Once among the most influential, and publicity-shy, LTC leaders of all time, the 30-year veteran was shown the door at the end of September. His once-mighty chain is still fighting for its autonomy as it tussles with its landlord and creditors.

•  Robert Kramer, NIC founder and strategic advisor -- After 20 years atop the influential capital-obsessed group, Kramer isn't totally fading away by any means. But the June announcement and July celebration — about a planned transition — still sent shockwaves. Kramer still has more great things to do, so the top prize isn't his this year.

•  The US Supreme Court — Sure, it wasn't unanimous, but members of the nation's highest court gave providers a HUGE victory in preserving the use of arbitration clauses in admissions agreements.

•  Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) — The senior senator from Arizona and one-time prisoner of war is facing his toughest battle yet as his days wind down while suffering from an aggressive form of brain cancer.

His dramatic return to the Senate floor in summer after brain surgery to allow a vote on a GOP proposal to get rid of Obamacare was upstaged only by his own decision to subsequently break with his party and kill the effort.

His accompanying observations on the sad shape of diplomacy and bastardization of the U.S. lawmaking process will be referred to for decades by anyone on either side of the aisle interested in returning integrity to the process of making federal law.

And now onto the finalist level of candidates …

•  The resilient provider — Challenged like never before with massive hurricanes destroying large parts of several Gulf Coast states and Puerto Rico, an untold number of providers were silent stars. Don't forget massive California wildfires that added to a fall of calamity that became a perfect proving ground for well-prepared operators.

• House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) — He actually got his chamber to pass an Obamacare repeal measure. More recently, this week he delivered not one but two votes to approve massive tax overhaul measure.

He can't be Newsmaker of the Year, however, because the GOP currently has such a strong majority in the lower chamber, his votes can survive even despite numerous defections from his own party.

• Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) — McConnell oversees the tougher chamber and it has showed. He couldn't muster enough votes for a repeal of Obamacare over the summer, even though the GOP holds a slight majority there. Like, Ryan, however, he did ultimately twist enough arms and trade enough horses to get his troops to deliver the vote for a tax system overhaul this week.

Even then, however, Ryan and McConnell are simply Crabbe and Goyle in this dramatic setting. In other words, not the head honcho.

•  That title would go to President Trump — As the country's chief executive, the president is always going to have major sway over regulatory matters, and others he is inclined to stick his nose into. Directly or indirectly, that has been significant this year.

While Trump's drive to reduce regulations has been a boon for providers, his administration's unexpected decision to aggressively pursue Medicaid payment reforms earlier this year was a shocking boot to the gut.

As with so many things in America today, Trump can yield a huge impact on long-term care any time his fingers near his Twitter feed. His influence on long-term care has been felt both directly and indirectly — though mostly the latter so far. For that reason, we'll also ask him to try again next year.

So that brings us to the 2017 Long-Term Care Newsmaker of the Year …

Rick Matros, the outspoken, tattoo-laden president and CEO of Sabra Health Care REIT.

Having held every kind of nursing home position from activities professional to CEO of a nationwide provider chain, Matros made big waves this fall when he pronounced that “bigger is not necessarily better” when it comes to operator size.

The head of a $7.4 billion company, he says he loves working with smaller providers. Efficiencies of scale are negligible nowadays, he maintains. His unofficial campaign to rewrite conventional wisdom set the establishment on its head.

In doing so, he's surely taken more than a little delight in throwing shade at former big-time partner Genesis Healthcare. There are also plenty of providers betting that he's wrong — after all, where does "small" stop and "too large" start? Through it all, Matros has remained congenial and eloquent. He's shared his vision for success with anyone who asks, and he has doubled-down on acquiring more skilled nursing operators.

He has come up through the system, survived its severe ups and downs, and is ready to usher in a new era.

In other words, a perfect choice for 2017 LTC Newsmaker of the Year.

Let the competition to see who will succeed him in 12 months begin now.

Follow Editor James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.