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Residents fight to keep nursing home open in A-Bay

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The River Hospital in Alexandria Bay is closing its 27-bed nursing home, the only one in the Thousand Islands. Officials say the home has been losing money and threatened to bring down the hospital itself. 44 people will lose their jobs. Many community members say they were never given a chance to help keep the home open, like they did with the hospital several years ago. They're fighting to keep the home open for their elders, many of whom have never lived outside the Thousand Islands region. David Sommerstein reports.

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Damon Shangra's lived his whole life in Alexandria Bay.  So has his 93 year-old mother, Elaine.  He likes River's Hospital's skilled nursing facility because they take good care of his mother in her hometown.  And because it's close to his painting business.

I'm down there a couple times a day.  And I see all the residents there.  And I stop and say hello to all of them.  They're all old friends.  It's just...shocking.

News the nursing home will close in three months began to spread earlier this month.  It shocked many in the Thousand Islands.  Like a school or a hospital or a post office, the home is part of the fabric of the community.

Some of the 27 residents are already being relocated to Watertown or Carthage.  Damon Shangra fears his mother may have to go even further.

They're talking about if we can't place 'em someplace within 3 months, they can ship 'em anywhere in New York State.  My mother could end up in Manhattan or wherever.

The nursing home was losing 800,000 dollars a year.  River Hospital CEO Ben Moore says the board of trustees was willing to take that hit until it realized the nursing home would consume the rainy day fund and plunge the whole hospital into the red by next year.  State budget cuts have only made matters worse.

We're a very small critical access hospital, and as a small institution, it's very difficult to shoulder the deficit, but we were willing to do it up to a point where we felt that it jeopardized the entire hospital.

Moore says a state health department regulation requires confidentiality when even considering the closure of a health care facility.  So when word got out, many community members were outraged.  Even state and federal lawmakers were caught unawares.

Darrel Aubertine told us that he learned of this closure about a week ago.

Steven Taylor is a contractor in Alexandria Bay.  His wife, Nellie Taylor, resigned from the Hospital Board on February 3rd due to the nursing home issue.

We recognize that reimbursement rates for Medicaid patients is low and it does not cover expenses.  We were upset that the decision to close was made without consulting the community.

Now the Taylors are leading the fight to get the River Hospital and the State Department of Health, which approved the closure, to change their minds.  They're meeting with State Senator Darrel Aubertine and Assemblywoman Addie Russell, and have been promised aid from Congressman Bill Owens.

The Taylors were also key players in 2003, when the Thousand Islands community banded together and raised millions to keep the hospital itself open.

The community saved this institution against all odds.  And in our opinion, to exclude the community from this, regardless of department of health regulations was a violation of trust.

Hospital CEO Ben Moore defends the board's decision, saying it was made in good faith.

There is a good portion of the community that is, although this is a sad situation for us, have expressed understanding and the understanding that we need to preserve the entire institution.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm David Sommerstein.

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