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County’s Riverhead Health Center is last to be privatized

TR0730_County_BE_C.jpgThe Riverhead Health Center will become the last of eight county-run health clinics to be handed over to a private entity after the county Legislature voted on Tuesday to partner with a Westchester nonprofit.

The Legislature voted 14 to 3 — with one recusal — to pay Hudson River Healthcare to operate the facility for at least the next five years. The decision is expected to save the county over $11 million, which is more than half what it would cost to continue running the clinic for the duration of the agreement. HRHCare, as the organization is known, will take over the clinic late this fall.

Officials have said that HRHCare will be able to offer more services at a better cost to county residents and will shrink the size of county government, removing Suffolk from a business that others are better equipped to handle.

“When the county is running the clinic, it costs an awful lot more to provide the requisite degree of services,” said Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), the Legislature’s deputy presiding officer. “And the county faces fiscal challenges. So we’ll be saving millions of dollars per year on average.”

No layoffs are proposed. The 43 employees at the Riverhead clinic are expected to be transferred to other positions within the Department of Health Services, such as the county’s jail medical unit or the public health department.

The county, which opened its first medical facility — the Martin Luther King Health Center in Wyandanch — in 1968, has been trying to exit the health care industry for close to three years. HRHCare took over its Coram facility in May 2012 to keep it from closing. Six other county clinics have been handed over to the nonprofit since March 2014.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced plans to privatize county-run operations in East Hampton, Southampton and Riverhead in October 2012. The East Hampton office later closed, merging with the Southampton clinic last March under HRHCare auspices.

Mr. Schneiderman said that after the Hamptons offices were taken over by HRHCare — which has a separate facility of its own in Greenport — he noticed immediate improvements, and has seen more over time.

“We struggled when the county was running the clinic in East Hampton to have an actual physician on staff,” he recalled Tuesday morning. “We had been promised a family medical doctor, but there was never one there. When we went to Hudson River, the first day at the clinic, there were two family medical doctors there.”

Allison DuBois, HRHCare’s chief operating officer, told the county Legislature’s health committee last week that the nonprofit plans to offer expanded hours for patients (including evenings and weekends), dental services, transportation and more.

As the county’s only federally qualified health centers, clinics run by HRHCare are, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, eligible for “enhanced reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid, as well as other benefits,” including sliding scale rates for lower income patients.

According to county officials, only 8 to 15 percent of those who currently visit the Riverhead facility, which opened in 1970, have private insurance. Close to 45 percent are uninsured and the rest have Medicare or Medicaid.

HRHCare operates in 10 New York counties, most in the southeastern portion of the state. According to its website, it was founded 40 years ago and last year treated nearly 135,000 patients during 470,000 visits.

Not all county legislators, however, favored the transfer of the Riverhead clinic.

Legislators Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) and Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said at last week’s health committee meeting that the deal wasn’t fair to the county employees currently working there. Both said they wanted to make sure that employees who live on the East End get their preference in new placements rather than being assigned to jobs that could be longer hauls. Ms. Browning added that while there is a current no-layoff policy, there will be no guarantees for those employees who change jobs the next time a union contract comes up.

A call to Brian Macri, president of the Suffolk County Association of Municipal Employees, was not returned.

Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) said Tuesday that the feedback the county has received so far indicates that moving forward with HRHCare offers a good opportunity to consolidate government.

“The reports we’re getting back show that we can offer more services and save the county a lot of money,” Mr. Krupski said. “And the main concern is that there’s a no-layoff policy. These people still have an opportunity to work.”

HRHCare is expected to take over the Riverhead clinic in November.

Photo credit: Barbaraellen Koch