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Despite pleas, Burlingame care center closing

Original source:

San Francisco Chronicle
Victoria Colliver
February 15, 2012

Anna Tupou, 76, has lived at the Burlingame Long-Term Care center for the past four years, a resident of one of only five county-run facilities in the state like it. On Tuesday, she was put on notice that she would soon have to find somewhere else to live.

Despite almost three hours of passionate and often emotional testimony from residents like Tupou and employees and supporters of the nearly 50-year-old facility, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted not to renew a five-year lease to run the center.

Tupou was convinced no amount of cajoling and pleading would have changed the outcome. The supervisors, she believed, already had their minds made up.

"Their time is going to come. They're going to see the day when they're in our position," shouted Tupou, as she was being lifted in her wheelchair into a van that would take her back to the center.

Burlingame Long-Term Care is a victim of state and local budget constraints, including a proposed 23 percent reduction in Medi-Cal reimbursement rates.

The financial squeeze was the biggest reason Tupou and some 230 other poor and disabled residents, most of whom are on Medi-Cal and other government programs, will now have to find a new home.

Concerns over the building's aging infrastructure and safety also played a role in the decision to close Burlingame Long-Term Care.

It's not affordable

The supervisors acknowledged the difficult dilemma, but they said the county couldn't afford a projected $9 million annual loss in running the center at a time when it's already having to cut millions of dollars from the budget.

"We're in a very difficult position because the needs of our community outstrip our ability to pay for them," said Supervisor Dave Pine. At the same time, he said, the county recognizes its "moral obligation" to make sure residents are properly placed.

County officials have promised to work closely with the residents and their families to find suitable living options, but they acknowledged that it may not be possible for everyone to remain in San Mateo County.

To help a little, the county plans to increase by at least 32 the number of skilled nursing beds available at the newer county-operated San Mateo Medical Center. Some 200 nurses and other employees at the Burlingame center are expected to lose their jobs. County officials said they would help the workers, but couldn't provide enough jobs for all of them.

The price to close the 281-bed facility, including costs such as giving severance packages to its employees, relocating its residents and shuttering the building, is estimated at $9 million in one-time expenses.

San Mateo County took over the Burlingame center in 2003 after two patients died from heat exhaustion. The previous owners had lost their license and declared bankruptcy.

The building's current owners, Mario and Vincent Muzzi, criticized a consultant's report commissioned by the county, which detailed safety problems with the facility. They even told the supervisors at Tuesday's meeting they would lower their rent to the county to keep the center open. The offer drew cheers from the crowd, but county officials said if they paid no rent at all, they would still lose about $7 million a year.

And significant improvements would have to be made.

"If Burlingame were built today, it would not be approved under current codes," said Jean Fraser, chief of the San Mateo County Health System.

Somewhere to go Dr. Susan Ehrlich, chief executive officer of the San Mateo Medical Center, said the county will do everything possible over the next 16 months to make sure residents have a safe and appropriate place to go.

But the residents, many of whom came to the meeting in wheelchairs, had hoped to persuade the supervisors to keep the center open.

"Today's Valentine's Day. This place is one big heart," said Esther Nord, 63, who needs oxygen continuously because of asthma and lung disease. "Please give us our miracle on Valentine's Day."

"I really would miss the staff. They're my family," said Connie Lauser, 52, who has lost both her legs to diabetes. She said other options are too expensive: "I just don't want to move."

Supervisor Carole Groom said the closing of the Burlingame facility may address an immediate budget issue but does not begin to solve the larger societal problem of how to care for the growing number of elderly people.

"We will solve the problems of the residents of Burlingame," she said, "but they will be followed in the coming years with new people who need long-term care."

Victoria Colliver is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.