– BELLONE BACKTRACKING ON CAMPAIGN PLEDGE, CHARGE CRITICS
– PATIENTS FORCED OUT
– NEW QUESTIONS ARISE OVER SQUASHED SALE
Rich Phillips didn’t let his cerebral palsy keep him confined to the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility in Yaphank; he’d often roll his wheelchair to a nearby 7-Eleven, or even Suffolk County police headquarters down the road. But when he was discharged to Brookhaven Memorial Hospital in March, under an edict by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s administration to vacate the county’s nursing home, it was the last straw for the 51-year-old former electronics salesman.
Phillips died in April.
“He was told by one of the staff at John J. that he wasn’t coming back to the only place he’s known as his home for the last 20 years,” says Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr., the Republican minority leader of the Suffolk Legislature. “You don’t have to be Marie Curie to figure out that if you give somebody no reason to live, he’s not going to live.”
Over the years Kennedy has clashed with two county executives to keep Foley open: Bellone, a Democrat, and his predecessor Steve Levy, a Democrat-turned-Republican. But the 264-bed public facility is now on track to be empty by June 30.
According to the county, as of May 28, 126 patients have been discharged to other facilities and 66 patients remain. As for the staff, about 160 are left from the peak of 310 workers a few years ago.
“The only thing worse than the closure of this facility would be to continue to ask taxpayers to subsidize this facility to the tune of millions of dollars, at a time when we have no money,” said Bellone in a statement. Suffolk is facing an estimated $250 million budget gap in 2014. He has said the facility loses more than $1 million a month.
During a recent unauthorized visit to Foley, I met with staff and patients who were fearfully counting their last days. A cart loaded with boxes—presumably representing a patient’s sole personal possessions—waited forlornly in the lobby by the front door. A frazzled nurse getting onto an elevator told visitors, with a sigh, he was “still hanging in there.” That man was from a contracting agency, so his job was safe for now at least, but county employees are being laid off in violation of the collective bargaining agreement, according to Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), one of the few legislators outspokenly opposing the closure.
Another harried worker who was afraid of retribution told me resignedly, “Morale is horrible. We’re like walking zombies. Then 20 minutes before your shift ends, they give you a termination letter: ‘Goodbye!’”
Some patients complained to Browning that they were being shown private nursing homes that smelled of urine. Others were being hustled off in taxis to destinations unknown or unwelcome; one was reportedly told that “you should go there because nobody else wants you.” All because the New York State health department is coming in June 18 with a mandate to expedite the closure on Bellone’s behalf.
“I’m a moderate Republican,” says Kennedy, who spoke with a mixture of sadness and outrage about how Bellone has handled this facility. “There’s nothing there as far as a core set of values, a core set of beliefs, and at the end of the day, everything’s for sale.”
Bellone begged to differ.
“I would not support the sale of this facility nor, I am confident, would a majority of this legislature, if it was providing a service to people who could not be served in the private sector,” he said. “I believe that is what government is here to do: those things which the private sector is unable or unwilling to do. That was not the case here. The private sector is not only fully capable of providing this service, they can do it better than we can.”
Paul Sabatino, Levy’s former deputy and the former counsel for the Suffolk Legislature, doesn’t buy it.
“A government service is not run to generate a surplus or a so-called profit,” he counters. Now in private practice, he filed a lawsuit on behalf of Browning, Kennedy and the nursing home’s union to block the sale. Sabatino cited the Suffolk Legislature’s independent Budget Review Office’s finding in 2012 that the county’s annual subsidy for the nursing home when occupancy is 95 percent would be between $3 million and $5 million.
“All county departments and functions are subsidized by county tax dollars,” Sabatino says. “For example, the Suffolk County Police District has received $662 million from the county over the past decade but nobody seriously suggests that we’re now going to privatize and sell off that police department!”
Last year Bellone announced an agreement to sell the Foley facility for $23 million to Sam and Israel Sherman, who own 13 nursing homes in New York State, including SunHarbor Manor in Roslyn. But the union objected to the sale and later rejected a compromise leasing arrangement that would have guaranteed their jobs for 18 months. So Bellone commenced the closure. On June 7, the Shermans are supposed to produce documents in court showing that the contract has been cancelled.
Levy, Bellone’s predecessor, had tried to sell the facility for $36 million to private nursing home operator Kenneth Rozenberg.
Before Bellone launched his campaign in 2011, he had sent Foley residents a letter expressing his “commitment to your care and well-being.” Tellingly, he added, “I have been troubled to watch as your home has been made into a political football for the advancement of political interests, while you are left in the dark about what the next weeks, months and years will bring.”
A Cure Worse Than the Disease
“He was going to be our savior!” says Richard R. Smith with a sardonic chuckle, waving Bellone’s letter in one hand and clutching his wheelchair with the other. The 6-foot-1 former carpenter from Shelter Island, who has severe emphysema, came to the facility in an ambulance four years ago when he weighed 98 pounds.
“When I arrived here, they didn’t think I was going to last a week,” says Smith, now 62 and 150 pounds. “This place saved my life—that’s why I’m so vehement about what’s going on.”
Recently he had suffered an episode when he couldn’t breathe and his temperature was running high, but he resisted going to another hospital’s emergency room because “I know that I ain’t coming back!” The so-called “transfer trauma” that shortened Rich Phillips’ life remains a constant concern for Foley’s remaining residents.
As for Bellone’s previous promise, Smith handed me a statement he’d drafted, which read, in part: “We have gone beyond [Bellone] being troubled by us being used as a political football and have been punted right out of the stadium.”
Bellone’s Foley letter shows how far his policy has evolved.
“If I am fortunate enough to be elected County Executive,” Bellone had written, “I am committed to working closely with your representatives, such as my good friend Kate Browning in the County Legislature and the Foley staff to ensure that your care is the foremost concern as we determine what actions need to be taken regarding the facility’s management.”
Browning scoffs at that today.
“There’s been no desire since day one to work with me and John Kennedy to save the nursing home,” she says. “It cost $42 million to build and now you’re selling it for $23 million? Would you do that with your own house?!”
Sabatino saw something worse than bad arithmetic in Bellone’s attempt to sell the county building to the Shermans.
“There’s no element of this transaction that could withstand legal scrutiny,” he says. “It was the most corrupt I’ve seen in county government since the car-leasing scandals in 1994…. Quite frankly, the Bellone administration owes a debt of gratitude to Kennedy, Browning and the union for stopping this transaction from going forward, because had it actually been consummated, my belief is that people would have wound up in jail.”
Sabatino mentioned how the county had signed a contract with the Shermans on July 30 last year to sell Foley “as is,” yet got the legislature to pass a resolution on Aug. 21 that would have given the buyers $1,013,886 to “correct” any heating, plumbing or electric problems. Kennedy referred to the administration’s pledge to pay the Shermans’ costs in getting a variance from the Brookhaven Zoning Board—a favor that the county wasn’t going to extend to another bidder, according to Browning. She referred to the administration’s pressuring the legislature to change the two-thirds voting requirement so a simple majority could approve the sale of a public asset—a precedent that other counties upstate are citing to dump their nursing homes, she said. Perhaps the oddest of all, Browning said, was seeing videotape of Bellone’s top people “opening doors and sneaking” the Shermans into the H. Lee Dennison Building after the security guard at the front desk had gone for the night, presumably to meet with the county executive on the top floor.
“This was a sweetheart deal,” she says, adamantly.
Bellone says he’s just doing his duty to lift the burden off Suffolk taxpayers.
“How do we tell working families who have lost child-care subsidies because of cuts we have made in this fiscal crisis that we will continue to spend their tax dollars to subsidize this facility?” he asks.
That’s a question that Rich Phillips will never have to answer.