The truth in the story

The care center as a small part of a larger debate

By ANNEMARIE SCHEUTZ
Posted 6/30/21

LIBERTY, NY — We’re a year into the future of the Care Center at Sunset Lake, and the two sides are still, in some ways, worlds apart.

The end itself is settled: as of this writing, …

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The truth in the story

The care center as a small part of a larger debate

Posted

LIBERTY, NY — We’re a year into the future of the Care Center at Sunset Lake, and the two sides are still, in some ways, worlds apart.

The end itself is settled: as of this writing, the Infinite Care Group and the county are very close to signing an agreement. But the debate will likely reverberate for a long, long time. 

July 2 is the anniversary of the day when, last year, the Sullivan County Legislature voted 9-0 to transfer the county’s nursing home to a local development corporation. That would have been a step toward selling it, and depending on the owner, patients on Medicaid could have to leave and staff, who are members of the county employees’ union, could lose their jobs. 

Protests erupted, and commenters lined up to talk about the importance of the care center. Certified nursing assistants and family members took the podium. Union members spoke up. 

Ultimately, the legislature chose to lease the facility instead and ensured that staff jobs were protected, said chairman Rob Doherty. 

The Infinite Care Group was chosen as the management company. 

Talk about the care center now breaks down into two approaches. On the one hand, you have the residents and their care. The other side argues that this is more about politics and union jobs than it is about the people who live there.

Caring for the vulnerable

Resident Lou Setren talked about how hard it was for his family, caring for their mother at home. He talked about the guilt when they made the decision to put her in the Care Center at Sunset Lake. “But home care was overwhelming,” he said last Saturday. “She needed to be in a facility with 24-hour care.”

Now Setren, currently the president of the family council (which advocates for residents at the facility) says, “I wouldn’t want my mom to be any place else. The staff treats the residents like their family.” 

Cat Scott’s mother is a resident at the care center too. “My focus is on the residents,” Scott said. As a family member, she has organized greeting cards and sugar-free candy to cheer residents up. She’s collecting magazines and trying to get them newspaper subscriptions. 

Setren and Scott also worry about the staff. Their jobs are protected, but they’ve still been through a terrible time, Scott said. “They’ve watched people that they loved die; they had to place people in body bags and carry them out [because non-staff weren’t allowed in during the pandemic]. They’ve lost staff because it broke them.” 

Female staff, she said, have also struggled with their family obligations and the general lack of child care. 

Staffing remains a serious problem, a message that administrator Burt Kohn repeats at every legislative health and family services committee. He was not available for comment for this story.

The quality of the care and the staff’s love for the residents, Setren and Scott say, has underlain their protests over the past year.

“The family council and many others associated and not associated with the care center were vehemently opposed to the sale,” said Setren. It would have been possible to correct the issues, he stressed. The county’s “financial position is nowhere near as dire [as expected early in the pandemic].” He suggested using ARPA funds to offset the impact of COVID-19 in the facility. 

But ultimately, it’s about priorities.

“There is a majority on this legislature,” he said, “who by their words, lips and deeds, they’re not interested in providing care for the residents of this county.” 

Politics overshadowing a facility in trouble

“This is about the Teamsters,” said legislature chair Rob Doherty in an interview on June 20. “This is about protecting union jobs.” 

Did you see how numbers in the room dropped after the county announced that jobs would be safe, he asked. “This isn’t about the residents.” 

A call to the Teamsters for comment was not returned.

Doherty said, repeatedly, in an earlier, June 18 interview, that for him it is also about care and ensuring that the county keeps a facility here. He points to the recent, temporary closure of New Village View in Highland, an assisted-living facility, as an example of what can happen. That home lost its operating certificate in early June, the Mid-Hudson News reported, in response to multiple code violations. 

Then he talks about money lost: $14.4 million dollars. About ongoing uncertainty over Medicaid reimbursements and whether the care center would be able to pivot to a more profitable model without a private manager. 

“The quality of care will go up,” he said. “They want to make money,” and that means caring for the residents.

Politicization and misinformation have created more problems, Doherty said. The way the situation at the care center got politicized has been frustrating. All you have to do is look at the votes to see that the legislature was nearly unified, he said. “It went to the LDC on an 8-1 vote, and picked the operator on a 7-2 vote,”

While numbers in the room have certainly dropped, several commenters remain and continue to speak out, suggesting some have motivations beyond politics or union jobs.

The twain, not meeting

When it comes to the lost revenue, Setren sounds frustrated. It’s a point he’s made many times. “These things that county government provides are not designed to make a profit,” he said. Much of government relies on grants to keep going—why target the care center in particular? 

The county’s financial position, he said, was nowhere near as dire as expected. Why weren’t different decisions made?

Doherty, on the other hand, describes a facility that has fallen on hard times, that has had poor administration in the past, and choices made over the years that did not maximize revenue. More rehab, more wound care—those would have helped keep the place going. It’s not just about funds that are immediately available, it’s about ongoing expenses and how to afford them.

Or maybe, ultimately, the trouble is about what government should be. It’s a microcosm of the larger nationwide debate that encompasses who we are, who benefits, and what our priorities are. What projects get approved and who supports them? What doesn’t get approved? 

Is this how politics is supposed to work?

“The politics that went into this and the constant misinformation that was fed to the public is unfortunate,” Doherty said. But in the end, the care center resolution “passed 8-1. I wish people would stop playing politics.” 

Scott disagreed. "This is not a Republican or Democratic issue," she said. "It's about people. It's not a political issue. It's really about the residents." 

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