MACHIAS -- Unionized housekeepers at the Machias Pines nursing home are inviting the public to workshops there Tuesday afternoon in response to the Cattaraugus County Legislature's call for private food service bids.
County officials led a group of potential vendors on a tour of the Machias facility last week. Some of them are expected to submit proposals by a Feb. 23 deadline, but the Legislature has not yet decided to privatize the service.
Lawmakers called for proposals after consultants announced the Machias meals cost more per patient than the vendor-prepared meals at the Olean Pines facility.
The bidders will estimate costs for dietary and housekeeping services for the 115-bed Machias Pines and for the food preparation now performed in Machias and Allegany serving some the County Department of Aging's nutrition sites.
Cheryl Smith, president of Local 805, Civil Service Employees Association, who works in the Machias facility as an LPN, is helping about 35 housekeeping and dietary workers there organize a public information campaign about the impact of such a move. She said Sunday that a similar session held last week brought out several concerned participants in a letter-writing campaign and petition drive.
"We want to make sure they know how the public does feel about it," she said.
Most express fears that vendors will employ part-time workers at minimum wage who can't provide the personalized care and attention now given to the nursing home patients. They point to the county's goal of creating a homelike atmosphere in the recently completed facility's five kitchen areas.
"For what the public employee does, can you match the same quality of food and the personalized attention that they give to our residents and the Meals on Wheels?" Smith asked.
However, last week, when Legislator Gary M. Felton, R-Machias, learned about the workshops, he suggested "the union might be jumping the gun."
He said the request for proposals is a way to find out the least cost and that lawmakers have tried to keep the staff well informed.
Officials say they are reluctant to sell or close the facilities and point to occupancy rates near capacity at the county's two homes. But unfavorable Medicaid reimbursement rates are prompting a search for cost-cutting measures.
County financial officials projected in the third quarter of 2005 that the Pines enterprise fund was expected to just break even for the year.
One consultant found that in 2005 the county spent $198 per patient per day in the county's Pines nursing home in Olean -- $61 more than the reimbursement rate.
At the Machias Pines, the county spent $255 daily on each patient's care, in comparison to the $161 per-day Medicaid reimbursement rate.
Smith said privatization of the housekeeping and dietary services would impact about 35 full- and part-time workers at Machias and approximately 35 more full- and part-time workers in Allegany. Some of those employees have more than 20 years on the job.
"Who doesn't deserve a fair wage and a retirement package?" she asked. "The biggest problem why all these counties are in trouble is the Medicaid reimbursement."