Lawmakers question proposed nursing home buyers

The John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility in

The John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility in Yaphank. (July 31, 2012) (Credit: Johnny Milano)

The proposed buyers of Suffolk's nursing home attempted Tuesday night to convince skeptical lawmakers of their commitment to the facility's current patients and employees.

Appearing before the county legislature for the first time, private nursing home operators Israel Sherman and his nephew Samuel insisted -- should their $23 million acquisition gain approval -- that they'd keep the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility's 194 remaining patients and offer its 205 workers jobs.

Critics of the deal worried that the Shermans, who run 13 for-profit nursing homes statewide, could find a way around their obligations by simply not readmitting Foley's sickest -- and costliest -- patients the first time they're taken to a hospital.

"We never send someone to the hospital with the expectation we're not taking them back," Israel Sherman said.

The family's comments came during the first full public hearing on the Yaphank nursing home's sale.

Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), a vocal sale opponent, said she still doubted a private facility would accept new patients needing a higher level of care.

Sherman said he couldn't give "any kind of contractual guarantee," but added the goal was always to keep potential residents near family.

"My concern is, as a for-profit agency, you cannot guarantee that to me," Browning said. "And that's why there's a need for a public nursing facility."

As for employees, the Shermans' contract with the county requires only that they offer jobs with terms "consistent" with nearby facilities. The contract also doesn't require that Foley itself remain open for any specific length of time.

Samuel Sherman said he couldn't speculate on what he'd offer existing employees, as that would be subject to negotiations with their chosen union. But he noted he didn't plan to make it against their interest to accept job offers.

"We need those employees to be there," he said. "I don't have a closet full of employees I plan on bringing in to replace the employees there today."

Facility staff continued their pleas to nix the deal, saying they're bothered that Foley's annual $10 million operating losses are often cited as a justification.

"We need to stop using John J. Foley as a scapegoat for the county's deficit problem," said Judy Salvatore, who has worked at the home since 1980.

She and others said they felt that, rather than working to improve the nursing home's efficiency and recruit more residents to increase federal reimbursements, County Executive Steve Bellone was focused -- just like his predecessor -- on getting it off Suffolk's books.

But Chief Deputy County Executive Regina Calcaterra said there was "never a directive" from her office to turn patients away. She noted Bellone is committed to creating an ombudsman-like position in the health department to monitor the transition to the Shermans and look out for patients' interests.

Bellone is eyeing approval of the sale by Sept. 13, allowing its revenue to be included in the 2013 budget, which has a projected $300 million hole to fill. Just after 9 p.m., the public hearing was closed, leaving that timeline in place.

As the process carries on, Foley workers are wearied by the stress of constantly defending their jobs and facility.

"The last five years we've been coming to you basically with a guillotine over our heads," said Pat Rollings, a 25-year Foley employee. "Month to month, we don't know what's going on."

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