East End lawmakers are divided over County Executive Steve Bellone’s recent recommendation that more county health centers transition to a federally operated model.
Touting the “successful” transfer of the county’s Elsie Owens Health Center in Coram to Hudson River HealthCare earlier this year, Mr. Bellone’s preliminary 2013 budget proposes to shift three East End county health centers into the Federally Qualified Health Centers program, known as FQHC.
County officials said Hudson River HealthCare — a federally operated, not-for-profit group with a network of 18 community health centers throughout the state and an office in Greenport — is being considered to take over county health centers in Riverhead, Southampton and East Hampton as well as The Maxine S. Postal Tri-Community Health Center in Amityville.
There are currently no plans to move remaining western Suffolk county health centers out from under the county’s jurisdiction.
Mr. Bellone said the move will save the county money because it will shift the overall cost of medical malpractice to the federal government. He maintained it will also improve the level of care by offering longer hours and providing dental services.
The executive said budget limitations prevent the county from achieving these types of offerings and believes expanding additional health centers to FQHCs will enhance services at a lower cost.
South Fork Legislator Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), whose district includes the Riverhead, Southampton and East Hampton county health centers, said he agrees the county should look into the FQHC model because it will save the county money while increasing the quality of health care.
If approved, he said, the plan could go into effect as early as March.
“I like the federal model much better than what we have now,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “I think it will improve the level of service to our residents.”
North Fork Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) said he’s opposed to moving quickly because he hasn’t seen any information that warrants such a change.
He said the decision to transfer the county’s health center in Coram to Hudson River HealthCare was a special case because it was the only alternative to keep it open. Former County Executive Steve Levy cut the funding for that facility in his 2012 budget and a partnership with Stony Brook University Medical Center didn’t come to fruition.
Mr. Romaine said an evaluation of how well the Coram health center is doing under Hudson River HealthCare hasn’t been completed and he hasn’t seen any information showing that the Riverhead health center and the two South Fork satellite offices face the same financial peril.
“I haven’t seen any information showing the Riverhead health center isn’t financially viable,” he said. “I have grave concerns because, at first blush, [Mr. Bellone] hasn’t provided any compelling information.”
County spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said Mr. Bellone’s office held a conference call June 28 with legislators to discuss the county health center overhaul recommendation.
Although an official evaluation of the Hudson River HealthCare takeover of the Coram site six months ago hasn’t been completed, Ms. Baird-Streeter said a steering committee will help the county decide the feasibility of switching other health centers to the federal model.
Other recommendations in Mr. Bellone’s proposed $2.77 billion spending plan, which freezes general fund taxes and doesn’t call for any layoffs, include increasing the county police district budget by $12.4 million next year to fund a new police class of 75 officers in September. Only households in western Suffolk County towns will see the $27 hike in their tax bill to support the increase, since East End towns run their own police forces. The county passed a similar tax increase last year to pay for a new police recruiting class of 80 officers.
Earlier this year the county laid off 658 employees and approved two controversial deals to sell the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility and surplus land in Yaphank. Mr. Bellone said those decisions will help the county close its budget gap. Financial experts estimated in March that the county’s three-year shortfall will be large as a $530 million.
“While we are making the tough choices to address the problems that have accumulated over the years, we must remain vigilant,” Mr. Bellone said in a press release. “My proposed 2013 budget is balanced, holds property taxes under the New York State tax cap, includes no general fund tax increase and will not lay off any additional employees … I look forward to working with the Suffolk County Legislature to enact this fiscally responsible budget.”
Mr. Romaine, who is the GOP candidate in this year’s race for Brookhaven Town supervisor, said he plans to draft amendments to restore funding for East End Arts’ annual Winterfest event and for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County programing. Those amounts weren’t immediately available.
The Legislature is expected to vote on the preliminary budget Nov. 7, the day after Election Day.