Nursing home's future now up to Bellone

Steve Bellone speaks about his transition to the

Steve Bellone speaks about his transition to the county executive seat in his office at Babylon Town Hall. (Dec. 20, 2011) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

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It started a century ago as the county's almshouse in Yaphank for Suffolk's sick and poor.

During the Depression in the 1930s, the federal Work Progress Administration built what for years was the county infirmary, a nursing home that operated for more than a half century.

The current 264-bed nursing home, named after its late champion, Legis. John J. Foley, was built nearly two decades ago after former County Executive Patrick Halpin fought a losing battle to put the infirmary into private hands. It remains in operation today, despite a prolonged effort by former County Executive Steve Levy to sell it or shut it down.

Now, the nursing home's fate falls to new County Executive Steve Bellone, who has only months to decide whether the facility can be re-engineered to be made less of a drain on the county budget, or pull the plug and remove it from life support.

"We consider it sufficiently important that this is going to be directly in the hands of the chief deputy," Bellone spokesman John Schneider said last week. Chief Deputy Regina Calcaterra will convene a meeting on the nursing home's future on Tuesday, the first working day of the new administration.

Levy last fall sought new proposals to sell the complex to a private operator. He also included a proposal in his budget to close it before year's end. The county legislature balked and lawmakers provided funding for only six months.

Levy's quest for a buyer resulted in three proposals. But after Election Day, the exiting county executive left them untouched. The names of the prospective buyers or the terms of their offers have not been disclosed.

County lawmakers who want to see the nursing home survive have gotten Brookhaven Memorial Hospital to respond to a request for proposals to create a public-private partnership to run it. Their idea is for a jointly-run facility -- perhaps with a reduced number of beds -- along with separate specialized services, such as head trauma rehabilitation and dialysis, which could yield higher aid reimbursements.

However, even nursing home backers say the hospital's plan needs more detail. "There are too many holes right now," said legislative Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook).

Christopher Banks, Brookhaven Memorial spokesman, acknowledges the plan needs work but noted that the nonprofit hospital has a track record with the county, having run two county health centers in Patchogue and Shirley for 30 years.

This past March, Levy and lawmakers came to an agreement to sell Foley to a private nursing home operator, Kenneth Rosenberg, for $36 million. The 6,500-member Association of Municipal Employees won a new contract tied to the sale, with 2 percent raises in 2011 and 2012 -- even though 265 nursing home workers would lose their jobs. Rosenberg later withdrew his offer.

Spokeswoman Randi Delirod said the AME is neutral on the Brookhaven Memorial proposal. She said the union did as much as it could in recommending a series of changes to improve management.

While Bellone touted the idea of a public-private partnership on the campaign trail, Levy says the new county executive, after reviewing the balance sheet, will come to the same conclusion he and Halpin reached. Levy says the nursing home requires a subsidy of $8 million to $10 million a year because of aid formulas and the high cost of public union contracts.

But Paul Sabatino, a former top Levy aide and now an attorney for workers and patients fighting to keep Foley open, said Levy's estimates are inflated, and there are ways to generate new revenue. "There are viable options rather than throwing people in the street," he said.