As a county legislator who has spent the past 10 months learning and analyzing the issues surrounding the Chautauqua County Home, I am concerned about the amount of misinformation, and outright lies, that are dominating the public debate on this issue. I truly believe that many of the opinions that taxpayers have formed on this issue, particularly in the north end of the county, are based on bad information.
Often when I am approached by constituents, and others, about their concerns for the future of the Home, I have been able to address their concerns with information they did not have before regarding the home's financial status, the bids received for the Home and Center for Government Research study results. Below I have tried to address some of the issues, and accusations, and share my view of the facts from my research and my involvement with the ad hoc committee.
Let me start by addressing some things that I consider to be myths.
Myth 1: If the Home is sold it will be closed.
One of the stipulations of the RFP is the Home must stay open for at least 10 years. But, equally as important, is the need for the nursing facility. The County Home is typically full. Therefore the demand is there and, with our aging population, that demand will continue to grow.
Myth 2: If the Home is sold the employees will be hired back at minimum wage.
One of the two offers the county received is from Altitude Health Services. Altitude is the only cash offer. They are also a company whose employees are in a union. Therefore, the employees of the Home would receive union wages, which are well above minimum wage.
Myth 3: If the Home is sold the quality of the care will drop dramatically.
According to Medicare, which rates nursing homes, the highest quality care in our county is provided by for-profit nursing home facilities. The County Home receives only 1 out of 5 stars from Medicare. You can check that for yourself by going to the medicare.gov website and searching for nursing home ratings.
Myth 4: Companies that buy public nursing homes don't live up to the terms in the agreement of the sale
I asked Dr. Donald Pryor from CGR, who has studied many nursing home facilities, if he was aware of private nursing home companies reneging on the terms of sale. He said he was not aware of any such situations. The residents of this county would be their customer base. So, it's just good business to live up to the written commitment it makes with the county.
Myth 5: The County Home is not losing money
The County Home operates at a deficit. The Home has received millions of dollars in taxpayer support over the last several years. That support has come through local county taxpayers dollars that are matched with state and federal taxpayer dollars through a program called Intergovernmental Transfer (IGT). Earlier this year, the legislature voted to fund the IGT with almost $1.4 million. That will be matched with state and federal dollars. This made sense to do, even if the Home were to be sold, because the process takes a long time and the home will operate at a loss, which is the taxpayers' responsibility to cover. Since 2008, county taxpayers have given over $6.6 million to the County Home through the IGT and that has been matched at varying levels by the federal government.
Other issues involving the status of the County Home:
The gas well on County Home property: The original intent was to create an income stream for the County Home. However, the gas well was never connected to the County Home. Once the possibility of privatizing the Home came about, the county executive chose to stop moving forward with connecting the gas well. Certainly some of the criticism of this process is justified. But it's not as simple as just connecting the gas well in order for the County Home to start realizing the income from it.
The CGR study results - Earlier this year, the County Legislature hired the Center for Governmental Research (CGR), an County Home's financial situation and offer options and cost savings. The study concluded there is no scenario in which the County Home would be able to operate without a loss.
The largest part of the savings recommended by CGR is wage and benefit concessions from union employees. CGR recommended the creation of a separate CSEA bargaining unit for employees in order to achieve those concessions. Union officials told CGR they have absolutely no intention of creating a separate bargaining unit for the Home's employees. This is documented in the CGR report.
In addition to refusing to consider a separate bargaining unit, CSEA officials rejected a request from the County Home's employees to offer concessions. A petition with signatures of more than half of the Home's employees was given to union officials with the request to make concessions.
Why can't the County Home make money when privately run nursing homes can? One of the most common questions I am asked is why can't the county run the nursing home without a loss when other organizations can make a profit. There are several reasons why a private sector company would be able to succeed in operating the Home without a loss when the government cannot. First, and foremost, is the restrictions placed on county-run nursing homes by the New York State Department of Health. County homes are prohibited from offering assisted living and independent living care which are less labor-intense and more profitable. County homes can only offer skilled nursing. The state of New York will not allow county governments to expand into those other services.
Should we sell the County Home? When I speak to other legislators "off the record" almost all of them admit that, at some point, we must sell the County Home. Even those who are vocally against the sale of the Home will admit, in confidence, that they realize the County Home will become a budget-busting financial burden. But then they say that they are just not ready to sell right now.
I feel that "kicking the can down road" will only makes things worse. As Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements drop, and costs rise, the Home will lose value. If we wait a couple more years to sell, when our backs are against the wall, we will not be able to make demands of the buyer, as we are now.
Right now, we are in relative position of strength. The Request For Proposal (RFP) that went out had 14 conditions that must be honored in the sale. Among those conditions are allowing all current residents to stay in the Home as long as they would like and keeping the home open for at least 10 years. We have the luxury of selling to someone who we feel will maintain the quality of care and honor these commitments.
If we wait until we are desperate to sell, these conditions will likely not be included as part of the contract. Sound decisions are not made when an issue becomes a crisis.
So it is for that reason that I feel now is the right time to sell the County Home.
George Borrello is a Chautauqua County Legislator representing Silver Creek.