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Suffolk moving health centers to contractor

Photo of the exterior of the Elsie Owens,

Photo of the exterior of the Elsie Owens, Suffolk County Health and Social Service Center in Coram. (May 17, 2011) Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Suffolk County is speeding up its effort to turn over more of its public health centers to an outside contractor as officials struggle with the impact of declining funding and staff.

Aides to County Executive Steve Bellone said Thursday that they're negotiating with the Peekskill-based federal-qualified nonprofit that operates Coram's Elsie Owens Health Center about running four other centers. Officials are aiming for an agreement this year to have Hudson River Healthcare Inc. run its Amityville center, and by early next year to take over clinics in Riverhead, Southampton and East Hampton.

Bellone originally had talked about examining Hudson's record at Coram and then possibly turning over one health center per year to a contractor.

"But our ability to maintain service levels is getting more difficult," said Health Commissioner James Tomarken. "We're losing critical staff."

His department will lose about 110 employees this week -- including six at county health centers -- through layoffs and retirements designed to help the county close a projected $530 million budget hole.

As a federally qualified operator, Hudson River Healthcare receives increased aid levels and free malpractice insurance. It had cost the county up to $30 million a year to run its eight health centers; officials estimated saving $3.1 million over the next five years just from turning over Coram, which Hudson River took over May 1.

"This came a little sooner than we expected, but if they want to step it up because of their constraints, that's OK," said Anne Nolon, president and chief executive of Hudson River Healthcare, which now runs 21 centers serving 70,000 patients upstate and on Long Island.

Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), whose district includes the three East End centers being considered by Hudson River, says the transition is about more than savings.

"You guarantee a basic level of service to remain a federally qualified clinic and are likely providing more mental hygiene care," he said. "It's a service we're not providing now."

Many constituents of Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches) also use the Riverhead clinic. While Romaine supported the Coram transition, he said he's skeptical of moving so quickly to turn over the other clinics.

"Why did they want to exercise caution a few months ago, but now throw caution to the wind?" he said. "I want to understand whether it's just driven by finances -- or desperation -- or intelligent policy."