Top Suffolk officials are confident that the family set to buy the county nursing home will raise the quality of care.
But some lawmakers and patient advocates are wary, saying private operators ultimately may seek to cut costs and turn away the sickest patients.
Israel Sherman and his nephew Samuel, who own 13 nursing homes statewide, agreed last week to purchase the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility in Yaphank for $23 million. The tentative deal, which also would relieve Suffolk of a $10 million annual subsidy to run the home, came days before County Executive Steve Bellone reached a new 10-year contract agreement with the police officers union that will save $30 million in pay raises through June 2013, but provide for steady increases thereafter.
Under the Foley deal -- which Bellone's office touts from a patient care standpoint, as well as a fiscal one -- the buyers must keep the nursing home's 194 remaining residents and offer private-sector union jobs to its 205 employees.
Chief Deputy County Executive Regina Calcaterra said she thoroughly investigated the Shermans' health and safety record before signing off on the deal for the 264-bed facility.
"Based on our analysis, and the Shermans' history, we're under the impression they [Foley patients] will be getting a higher level of care," Calcaterra said in an interview.
Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), a physician who chairs the health committee, has called the deal a "home run" for nursing home patients and county taxpayers.
But Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) expressed concern that the private operators, while bound to keep Foley's current occupants, would eventually steer clear of residents whose care is more expensive.
"I can't say I have any kind of full assessment of these people," Kennedy said. "But whether it's the Shermans or the Acme Nursing Home Co., I keep coming back to the fact that they're focused on the dollar as their bottom line."
Representatives of the family, who will host open houses for lawmakers and families of Foley patients this week, didn't respond to requests for comment. They forwarded an inquiry to the president of a nursing home trade organization.
"They're recognized as very good, quality operators across the spectrum of their facilities," said Richard Herrick of the New York State Health Facilities Association.
Israel Sherman has 30 years of nursing home experience, many as a former administrator at a Great Neck location. He and his nephew began acquiring their facilities, including Sunharbor Manor in Roslyn Heights and 11 in western New York with the name Absolut Care, seven years ago. Last year, they added the Niagara Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Niagara Falls.
Calcaterra said the county found no lawsuits alleging poor care against the family or any of their business entities. In comparing New York State Department of Health inspection surveys, she added that Foley generated more complaints, and received more citations for violating state and federal regulations, than the average of the buyers' 13 nursing homes.
She also pointed to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services nursing home rankings. In that annual assessment, Foley last year rated two of five stars, or "below average."
The Sherman facilities scored an average of 2.8 stars, near the "average" three-star rating. While the family's only Long Island facility, Sunharbor Manor, received an "above average" rating of four stars, six of their upstate homes were rated at one or two stars.
Richard Mollot, executive director of the Manhattan-based Long Term Care Community Coalition, a patient advocacy group, disagreed with Suffolk's using the average Sherman ranking to predict they'll improve care at Foley. He said the number of substandard facilities is more telling.
"If they were all four or five stars, that would be somewhat comforting to me, but they're certainly not," Mollot said, adding that municipal nursing homes have long been "safety nets" for the sickest patients.
Majority Leader DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said he would weigh the financial benefits of the deal -- Suffolk already faces a projected $300 million deficit -- while still carefully vetting the buyers.
"Obviously, we can't afford to lose $10 million a year on this," he said. "We're in a tight crunch with the budget. But that doesn't negate our responsibility to examine any red flags that may arise."
The father of one Foley patient said he is hoping for a "seamless transition." Mastic Beach resident George Barnes' son, Chris, suffered cardiac arrest and brain injury while in London in 2005, and has since been in a vegetative state.
"My son is 100 percent disabled. He's got no physical or cognitive ability, and the bottom line is he's paramount in my considerations," Barnes said. "If he doesn't get comparable or better care, I promise they'll hear from me."
With Laura Figueroa