EDITORIAL: Don’t write off Pine Haven

WHERE WILL YOU LIVE when you’re old and can’t make it on your own? Not the daydream of a beachfront home where breezes rustle palm trees. What if you need nursing care?

Consider Pine Haven, a 120-bed skilled nursing and rehabilitation center in the Village of Philmont. Pine Haven is owned by the county and for years the county Board of Supervisors discussed and then pursued replacing it with a new building costing around $32 million plus interest. It’s about time. Experts say that by the year 2040 there will be almost twice as many county residents 85 and over as there are now. A lot of people in their 60s now will be needing nursing home beds in 26 years.

The population trends fit well with plans for a new nursing home… until the recession hit and state and federal funding sources dwindled. These days the county subsidizes Pine Haven to the tune of a million and a half dollars a year. In addition, over half the residents at Pine Haven are eligible for Medicaid, meaning they’re poor and have limited options for care.

At the same time the state will soon let private firms handle Medicaid reimbursements, and Pat Grattan (R-Kinderhook), chairman of the Board of Supervisors has doubts about whether money the county was counting on from Medicaid and other federal sources will actually be there to help offset the costs of a new nursing home.

Adding to the pressures, the county has already spent about $400,000 on detailed plans for a new Pine Haven and the meter was still running despite the warning signs. So earlier this month, motivated by visions of a double digit rise in county taxes if the county had to pay for a new nursing home, Mr. Grattan spoke with members of the board’s Pine Haven Subcommittee and other supervisors, then he hit the brakes. He told the architect working on the Pine Haven plans to halt work on the project.

He also arranged for a private nursing home operator based in New York City to come up with what apparently will be an informal appraisal of Pine Haven in the event the county decides to sell the facility to a private entity. The sudden and unexpected change of heart by the county has led to suspicions by some that a deal had already been cut to unload Pine Haven. Among them is Ghent resident Al Wassenhove, who has worked for years to create a veterans service center at Pine Haven once the nursing home moves to a new building nearby.

Mr. Wassenhove’s concerns are understandable, as is the recent motion by the Philmont Village Board to oppose the sale of Pine Haven. That’s because the county’s abrupt about face felt like another in a long line of arbitrary decisions and screwy proposals by county officials.

It’s not that simple. Mr. Grattan’s concerns stem in part from a year-long study conducted by the non-profit Center for Governmental Research in Rochester called The Future of County Nursing Homes in New York State. Released last August, the study looked at the 33 counties around the state (excluding New York City) that operate nursing homes. It found that costs have gone up and revenues have dropped to the point that nearly all of them lost money each year from 2006 to 2010, coming up short on average $6 million annually.

The study also confirms that the outlook for federal and state funding is not good and that county-run nursing homes have higher costs than homes run by the private sector because government treats its workers better when it comes to benefits. And it says the state cap on property tax increases further limits what counties can do to help support their nursing homes. Eight counties are selling their nursing homes and another three are seriously considering a sale.

County officials have neither the current facts nor the long-term plan to make informed decisions about the fate of Pine Haven. Mr. Grattan had good reason to force the county to revisit its plans for a new nursing home, but now that he has everyone’s attention it’s time for a detailed and entirely public review of the options followed by recommendations on how to proceed.

This is not just another budget item. The county is considering abandoning its historical commitment to care for its most vulnerable residents. As they ponder what to do about Pine Haven, supervisors should consider where they’ll go when they or a loved one need nursing home care

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