NEW YORK NURSE: July/August 2010
by Mark Genovese
Already facing tight budgets due to the tough economy, upstate New York counties were dealt a severe blow this spring when the state legislature cut a staggering $70 million in support for home healthcare programs. With certifications selling for up to $1.2 million, some counties are looking to balance their budgets by putting their agencies on the market.
Although NYSNA members who work for these agencies are concerned about the loss of their jobs, they’re more worried about their patients. County home health agencies play a vital role in the delivery of health care in local communities. Many of their clients are senior citizens or disabled, and might require a higher, more expensive, level of care if public home care were no longer available.
“As employees of a public health agency, it’s our duty to provide care to patients who may not otherwise be able to afford it,” said Alice Sears, president of the NYSNA bargaining unit in Cayuga County. “But a private corporation’s interest will always be its bottom line.”
NYSNA members in Cayuga County fought for more than a year to stop the sale of its certified home health agency and long-term home care program, collecting more than 1,000 signatures from local residents opposing the sale. But in December 2009, the county legislature voted to sell the services to a private company for $1 million. “I feel betrayed,” Sears said at the time. “We’ve been sold down the river for a million dollars.”
In May, dozens of Madison County home health workers protested the county’s creation of a task force to develop a “request for proposals,” which would be the first step toward evaluating whether it will sell its certified home health agency. Crowding into a meeting of the county Public Health Services Committee, nurses held signs that said: “Public Health Care is NOT for sale!” County officials replied that they will explore all options before making a decision, but noted the programs lost nearly $400,000 last year, and that these are services the county is not legally required to offer.
“Government’s role is to provide a safety net, to provide care for the uninsured and underinsured,” said Catherine Feuerherm, public health director of neighboring Cortland County. “It was never supposed to make a profit on its services.”
That county’s home health agency also faces severe economic pressures. Without help from the state, it could face closure. “This could leave our most vulnerable patients in the most remote areas of the county without home care,” Feuerherm said. “In the current economic climate, the county cannot afford to shift this cost to the local taxpayer.”
According to homecare advocates, 65 percent of New York’s home health agencies – public and private – were already in the red before these cuts. NYSNA is supporting legislation to block home care cuts (S-7916/A-11170). This legislation was in the health committees of the state Senate and Assembly when the session ended in early July.
NYSNA members from these agencies will be meeting with state legislators in their home districts over the legislative recess to explain the importance of the public certified home health and long-term home health programs. They will ask the state legislators to communicate their support for home health programs to the county officials in their districts.
During the past two years, nine public homecare agencies have been sold or closed in upstate counties. This has to stop now. If you would like to take part in NYSNA’s effort to protect public health services, contact your NYSNA nursing representative.