The Ensign Group, a Mission Viejo, Calif.-based owner and operator of nursing homes principally in the western United States, has embarked on a buying spree. In early October, the publicly traded company (Nasdaq: ENSG) acquired three skilled nursing care facilities in Utah.

The facilities include Castle Country Care Center, an 80-bed skilled nursing facility in Price; South Valley Care Center, a 116-bed skilled nursing facility in the Salt Lake City suburb of West Jordan; and Rock Canyon Rehab & Care Center, a 200-bed skilled nursing facility in Provo. The facilities were purchased with a combination of cash and seller financing.

"These strategic acquisitions offer tremendous potential operating synergies for Ensign's existing operational base in Utah," stated Derek Gasser of Ensign's Utah-based Milestone Healthcare subsidiary in a press release. The physical plants are in superior condition, and the locations provide an excellent fit with Ensign's existing operations in Utah, emphasized Gasser.

The Price facility is one of only two skilled nursing facilities within a 50-mile radius. The West Jordan and Provo facilities are located directly across the street from large hospitals. All three Utah facilities were acquired from a family that had operated them for many years.

“We are pleased that the former owners would entrust their life's work to us, and we are committed to growing and enhancing what they've built,” said Christopher Christensen, Ensign's president and CEO. He added that Ensign expects the three facilities, which had a combined occupancy rate of approximately 48% at acquisition, to be operationally accretive to earnings starting in 2010.

Ensign also acquired Golden Acres, a 22-acre skilled nursing and independent living campus in Dallas, Texas in early October. The Golden Acres acquisition included a profitable hospice business, Custom Care Hospice. Although many Ensign facilities offer hospice services through third-party agencies, this is the first time Ensign has engaged in the hospice business itself.

Meanwhile, Ensign allowed the lease on one of its Arizona assisted living facilities to expire, turning the operation over to a new tenant. An Ensign affiliate had operated Greenfields Assisted Living in Mesa, Ariz., since 1999. The lease expiration at Greenfields leaves Ensign with two assisted living facilities in the Phoenix metro area.

The company is seeking additional opportunities to acquire both well-performing and struggling long-term care operations across the western U.S. The four acquisitions and one lease expiration increase Ensign's portfolio to 73 facilities, 42 of which are company-owned. Ensign affiliates hold purchase options on nine of the 31 leased facilities.

Ensign’s stock closed at $14.83 per share on Monday, Oct. 26. Over the past 52 weeks, the stock price has ranged from a high of $19.25 to a low of $11.73.