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February 6, 2013

Benzie won't push to merge nursing home, hospital

BEULAH — A proposal to merge Benzie County's publicly owned nursing home with a private hospital fizzled after residents cited fears of job cuts and a loss of local control over health care services to county seniors.

More than 60 people packed the Benzie County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday to discuss the proposal to build a new Maples Medical Care nursing home facility on the grounds of Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital in Frankfort.

The proposal, first floated by Benzie County Commissioner Roger Griner, would have turned over Maples management to Paul Oliver.

Privatization of nursing home services would have reversed an existing county plan to build a new, $10 million facility on Maples Avenue in Frankfort and keep nursing home services under county's auspices.

Jennifer Flynn has worked at both Paul Oliver and the Maples. She said she was against a merger with Paul Oliver because of worries of job cuts for many of the more than 100 Maples employees.

"When they (a private hospital) decide they want to save money, they combine jobs and cut people," Flynn said.

Others said turning the Maples over to Paul Oliver would cost the community its say on how the Maples is run; they noted the Maples is a key service for Benzie County's indigent seniors.

"I don't think we need to lose the Maples right now," said Craig Meridith, 64, of Thompsonville, adding hundreds of local residents "all got excellent care" as they approached the end of their lives at the Maples.

The Maples annual budget is about $6.6 million. Griner said a merger with Paul Oliver could save the county millions by reducing duplication. Griner estimated initial cost savings alone could approach $450,000 a year.

"Consolidating administrators, head nurses, human resource department heads, payroll clerks and other positions will most certainly yield added cost savings," Griner said.

Griner conceded that Tuesday's public discussion likely killed the idea.

County residents previously approved a new Maples facility. A .365 millage for the Maples that expires in 2016 brings in about $350,000 a year for operational costs. A .635 building millage brings in about $700,000 annually to pay for construction costs.

But attempts to build a new county-owned nursing home has had its setbacks. The county previously paid more than $500,000 to an architectural firm for surveys, plans and other preparations for the new nursing home, only to shift course and hire a new architect because of concerns the original plans were not properly filtered through the county's Building Authority.

Paul Oliver's top administrator, James Austin, said hospital officials were willing to work with the county to see if a merger was a good fit

Austin said it was not clear if the capital millage approved by the public permitted construction of the Maples on Paul Oliver property, or gave permission for the hospital to manage it. He also said it was not clear if the state would approve of the arrangement through the issuance of a required certificate-of-need for the new facility.

"If we combine the resources of the Maples with the resources of Paul Oliver in way that creates efficiencies, it could result in sustainable, high-quality nursing home services in Benzie County," Austin said. "The key word is sustainable."

Commission Chairman Don Tanner said he opposed the proposal from the start. He said he believes Michigan law prevents such a public-private merger.

"We had a vote of the people to build a facility at the current location," Tanner said. "Our job is to build it."

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