Butler County nursing home's status in doubt

| Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Workers at the county-run Sunnyview Nursing and Rehabilitation Center overwhelmingly voted to reject Butler County's proposal to reopen their contract, possibly putting the facility in question, according to some county officials.

The 134 to 5 vote last week was taken at the request of Butler County commissioners, who requested negotiations at the beginning of this year. The nursing home chronically runs deficits and is expected to lose $1.4 million this year.

“We had hoped we could get the workers to agree to our proposal,” said Bill McCarrier, commission chairman. “We will have to decide what our options are. If they had voted for this, I would have had no interest in privatizing Sunnyview.”

Commissioners for years have floated the possibility of getting out of the nursing home business as many Pennsylvania counties have done. At one time, 50 counties operated nursing homes. Now, according to the Pennsylvania Association of County Affiliated Homes, 29 counties run 33 nursing homes.

McCarrier said he did not know whether the county will continue negotiating with the union that represents workers. Commissioner A. Dale Pinkerton said the county's offer was final.

“If it's ever going to survive, Sunnyview will have to survive on something like the terms we recommended,” Pinkerton said.

Commissioner James Eckstein wants the county to continue operating the nursing home, where about 80 percent of residents receive Medicaid.

“Sunnyview serves a real need for the working-class and low-income people in Butler County,” he said.

Eckstein would like to cut the nursing home's deficit in half. “I want to be positive. I want this to work,” he said.

The commissioner cited the Butler Township nursing home's losses as a major factor in approving a 1 mill property tax hike last year. For a $100,000 home, that translates to an increase of $17 each year.

“It's lost money for the past 10 to 15 years,” McCarrier said. “We are trying to get it to be revenue-neutral, which is why we asked the contract to be reopened.”

The county is asking workers to contribute more to their benefits — primarily health care, McCarrier said.

The workers' four-year contract with SEIU Healthcare, the health care arm of the Service Employees International Union, expires at the end of next year.

According to union organizer and Sunnyview worker Terry Penrod, the county proposed a wage freeze for next year and a 900 percent increase for a family health care plan, which would cost each worker $300 per month.

Penrod, who works in maintenance at the nursing home, said that a sale of Sunnyview would jeopardize the welfare of its 220 residents.

“Our biggest fear is that patient care will go down. The main goal of a private company is to make money. Staffing and levels of care will go down,” he said.

Tamara Lefcowitz, an SEIU Healthcare organizer, said that in addition to contributions to health care, the county has asked to reduce workers' vacation and sick time and allow unlimited use of non-union workers.

“The proposal is 11 pages long and makes extensive changes to the contract. It forces people to drop insurance if their spouse has insurance.”

Lefcowitz wants the union and county to continue negotiations.

Sunnyview's financial problems are not unique. Beaver County closed a portion of its Friendship Ridge personal care home last year to cut costs.

Cambria County in 2010 sold its 370-bed nursing home in Ebensburg, Laurel Crest, to private company Grane HealthCare. The same year, Lackawanna and Carbon counties sold their facilities to private operators, saying the nursing homes carried too much debt for the counties.

Allegheny County projects a $4.5 million shortfall for its Kane Regional Centers this year.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at rwills@tribweb.com.

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