Suffolk nursing home battle intensifies

Three of the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing

Three of the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility's 195 patients were moved to other long-term care centers in Suffolk on March 28, 2013. (Credit: Bill Davis)

Rick Brand

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After two decades of battling, Suffolk's century-old county nursing home in Yaphank is 32 days away from its scheduled closing. But both sides last week started lobbing "Hail Mary" passes to keep it open in very different ways.

After laying off the first 16 workers last weekend, County Executive Steve Levy in a surprise move called for a special county legislative meeting this Thursday. He wants to resuscitate the $36-million sale to private nursing home operator Kenneth Rozenberg even though lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected the sale in December.

Supporters of keeping the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility as a county operation are pinning their hopes on their own long shot - hoping the Appellate Division in Brooklyn will reverse a lower-court ruling allowing Levy to complete the shutdown by March 31. The Appellate Division reinstated a temporary order blocking shutdown on Tuesday.

But beyond the courts and the legislature, the battle has turned intensely personal.

Levy, a Republican, threatened to seek a temporary restraining order to keep Legis. Kate M. Browning (WF-Shirley) from entering the nursing home - which is in her district - claiming she interfered with layoffs. He also asked state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a Democrat, to intervene in a nursing home audit being done by Republican County Comptroller Joseph Sawicki because Sawicki had attended a rally for those trying to keep the 264-bed nursing home open. DiNapoli has not responded.

"How . . . can the comptroller seek to curry favor with proponents of keeping the nursing home open at the same time he is supposedly doing an impartial audit of the process to sell the nursing home?" said Levy.

Of Browning, Levy said, she "will say and do anything at this point to stop the process of closure."

Both officials discount Levy's tactics. "The idea that he would try to keep me from talking to constituents is absolutely outrageous," Browning said.

Sawicki, a potential GOP primary foe for Levy in the county executive's race this fall, said his attendance at the rally and his support for keeping the home open would not affect his review. Sawicki blamed Levy's "deep paranoia" for his attack. The audit is merely analyzing the selection process for a potential new operator and how the county spent a $2.6-million health department grant that went to the home despite the impending shutdown.

"We're basically on a fact-finding mission, and facts do not lie," Sawicki said.

Levy wants to revive the sale because it will generate immediate cash to the financially pressed county, avoid moving patients and keep many of the county workers employed, albeit at lower salaries. He also lashed out at legislators for opposing the shutdown while leaving anticipated revenue from a sale in the budget. Levy claims lawmakers are using the money for pet projects. "They can't have it both ways," he said.

Lawmakers deny those claims and counter that Levy created his own problems because he should never have included $17 million in net revenues from the scheduled shutdown or a sale in his 2011 budget proposal since the legislature had not approved the sale.

"He just wants to fill his budget hole," said Browning.

That was an argument made in the lawsuit by the plaintiffs - three nursing home residents and one employee. But Justice Paul Baisley dismissed their contentions, saying the suit was seeking to gain by "judicial intervention what the legislature was unable to accomplish via the legislative process."

Still, plaintiffs' attorneys believe the Appellate Division, which four times has granted stays of the closing, will be more receptive to their case.

Legislative Majority Leader Legis. Jon Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor) said he doesn't believe lawmakers will vote for the sale until the final court ruling is rendered, despite Levy threats that delays could cause 1,000 layoffs elsewhere in the county.

"He's just trying to apply pressure," said plaintiffs' attorney Anton Borovina. "Levy's trying to make it seem like the 7th Fleet is coming over the horizon."