Five years -- and about $60 million in losses -- have passed since Suffolk County first started looking hard at selling the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility in Yaphank. There was a different county executive then, and a different, far rosier, budget situation. But the reasons to favor the sale and the tenor of the opposition were much the same as today.
In his State of the County speech on Tuesday night, Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone spelled out a stark reality, and those who want the county to stay in the nursing home business must get it through their heads: Either the 284-bed facility, which is hemorrhaging about $1 million a month, will be taken over by private operators, or it will close.
Suffolk County faces a deficit of $80 million to $125 million. That's in a 2013 budget that projects $23 million in revenue from the sale of Foley and does not include any nursing home losses. Had the process not been blocked at every turn, the facility would have been sold for $36 million in 2011 under then-County Executive Steve Levy. Instead, Medicaid reimbursements were slashed while the tortuous sale process dragged on and the buyer walked away.
Now, there are other buyers willing to pay -- albeit less. Sam and Israel Sherman operate more than a dozen nursing homes in the state. Every one of them has unionized employees. The Shermans have promised that every resident at Foley can stay, and they agreed that every employee will remain after the sale.
For taxpayers, patients and employees, that's as good as it's going to get.
But a vocal, stubborn minority has been fierce in its opposition. The battle has played out in court, in front of the Brookhaven Zoning Board of Appeals, and before a committee of the state Public Health and Health Planning Council. Sale proponents lost key, though not crippling, votes in front of both bodies, while a lawsuit continues on behalf of two county legislators who oppose the sale and the union representing employees.
The drama around the Foley facility reflects a wave of privatization of county nursing homes across the state, as taxpayers and officials realize they can't run them without steep losses. At least four county-run facilities were sold in 2012, and at least 10 more counties are selling or closing their nursing homes.
Bellone is firm in his conviction, and willing to be creative in execution. He and others knowledegable about the process say they believe the county will get approval from the state planning council fairly easily in March. They admit sale proponents were unprepared for the fight put up by naysayers. Bellone says it won't happen again, and on the legal merits, the approval should pass.
As for the zoning change, needed because the county wasn't subject to Brookhaven's zoning and a private owner will be, Bellone says Suffolk can work around it by leasing Foley to the Shermans for now.
Suffolk County needs to get out of the nursing home business, and one way or the other, it will. There is no point in supporting the status quo. Those fighting this are blindly trying to hold on to an outdated model, and to power over jobs and beds and money.
And it's those trying to keep things exactly the way they are who will be to blame if Foley closes, the patients are all moved and more than 200 employees end up on the street.