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Long IslandSuffolk

Nurses oppose proposed Suffolk health care budget cutback

A dozen county nurses spoke out Thursday against eliminating a program that provides at-home care to drug-addicted babies and mothers, victims of crimes and other at-risk patients discharged from hospitals.

“We take care of the most vulnerable population in Suffolk County,” public health nurse Dolores Welch told the legislature’s Health Committee.

The 21-position bureau is eliminated in County Executive Steve Bellone’s proposed budget for 2017 to save about $1.6 million.

County spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said private agencies, paid by insurance companies, provide the same at-home service. “There’s more than a plethora of agencies that do this,” she said, noting the county has been shifting away from providing direct health care.

Public health nurses visited 3,419 patients last year, down from 4,242 in 2010, according to county figures. Hours that can be billed to insurance, meanwhile, dropped 90 percent in that time. The number of babies with drug or other addictions increased from 19 in 2010 to 311 in 2015.

None of the employees would be laid off. Instead, they’d be transferred to other departments, including the jail and addiction response team, Baird-Streeter said.

But Legis. Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset), a registered nurse, said many private agencies don’t want to take the cases because they’re in unsafe neighborhoods. The cases are referred to the county by hospitals when they discharge patients that are at risk of being readmitted.

“For me, the purpose of government is health, safety and infrastructure,” she said. “We’re chipping away at everything we do health-wise.”

Another public health nurse, Sharon Lieberman, told lawmakers she had recently treated a baby with the Zika virus and babies born addicted to heroin. “We go where other agencies won’t go,” she said. “I love my job. You’re helping the underserved people.”

The county faced a deficit of up to $180 million that Bellone proposed balancing with a police district property tax hike, higher fees, borrowing for pension and police retirement costs and some cuts to programs.

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