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Honoring Foley

Posted on 13 April 2012

By Karl Grossman

The late Suffolk County Legislator John J. Foley was a model for compassion in government. He was dedicated to the care of the ill. And thus it was fitting that the historic Suffolk County infirmary was renamed the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility.

It was Mr. Foley of Blue Point — a county legislator for 18 years — who, in 1990, fought the plan of fellow Democrat, then County Executive Patrick Halpin, to close the infirmary and  won bipartisan support to build a replacement $34 million facility.

The Foley facility is important for being the nursing home in Suffolk that will accept those that other nursing homes won’t  — notably poor people with serious illnesses requiring long-term care that private nursing homes shy away from because of financial issues.

In recent years, there’s again been a call for the county to no longer run it. Former County Executive Steve Levy conducted a major campaign to close or sell the facility.

In 2008, a year before he died at 90, Mr. Foley wrote a letter to Newsday noting that its “masthead says: ‘Where there is no vision the people perish,’” yet “the paper’s editorial board says, ‘Suffolk should get out of the nursing home business.’ But that is the point here—we are not in a business. The poor will perish if we do not keep our commitment to deliver quality of care via the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility at Yaphank; not a business, but a commitment to deliver quality of care to the poor.”

“Let us preserve our vision, our commitment to the poor,” wrote Mr. Foley. “Let us also realize that the county executive’s [Mr. Levy’s] game plan is to take Suffolk out of health services, and by so doing, penalize the poor.”

The future of the Foley facility is at a crossroads again. Under the budget for county government for 2012, its 250-person staff faces lay-off on June 30 — causing a closure of the nursing home — unless that is changed.

Legislators Kate Browning of Shirley, a Working Families Party member who runs with Democratic cross-endorsement, and John Kennedy of Hauppauge, the Republican leader of the legislature, have been in the forefront in seeking to save Foley.

“I don’t think Steve Bellone is of the same mindset as Steve Levy,” says Ms. Browning.

“I think he has a heart.” The new county executive, she acknowledges, “is dealing with a tough financial situation.” Still, the county’s nursing home “has been there for 100 years. It survived the Depression.” And it is critically needed. It’s the nursing home in Suffolk that “accepts those others will not.”

She and Mr. Kennedy want to work with Democrat Bellone in developing a “public-private partnership” for the 264-bed facility. Ms. Browning speaks of the “compassionate side of me… We are not commodities but human beings. It takes only one health-related emergency to put you at the bottom — and with no place to go.”

After reimbursements from federal and state governments, Foley has been costing the county $6 million a year. Ms. Browning says  “I am not going to say Foley will be a profit-maker, but we can get it to operate as close to the black as possible and have it sustain itself — if we have the opportunity to do that.” She doesn’t want to see it closed “to fill a budget hole.”

Foley provides excellent care. It’s “the jewel of Suffolk County and should remain a facility that is under the control of Suffolk County government,” testified Cheryl Felice, then president of the Suffolk County Association of Municipal Employees, before the legislature in 2010. She also asked: “Does the Suffolk County jail make a profit? Do [the Departments of] Social Services or Health Services make a profit? Why is it that Foley is being held to a different standard of having to make a profit?”

The Foley facility, like the man it is named after, is about compassion and helping those who desperately need it. This is a vital mission of local government. It is beyond partisan politics. We must continue the legacy of John J. Foley.

As Legislator Kennedy said as the legislature voted 11-to-6 in 2010 against a Levy resolution to close Foley: “I have always been impressed with the resourcefulness of my colleagues and of this body….That resourcefulness has been the impetus for some great legislation that has impacted not just this county, but this nation. I refuse to accept that we have only a choice to sell or a choice to close.”  Neither can we accept that.

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