AURELIUS | Cayuga County is officially opting out of the nursing home business.

In a 10-5 vote, the Cayuga County Legislature voted to transfer ownership of the Cayuga County Nursing Home to a soon-to-be-created entity, agreeing to merge operations with Auburn's Mercy Health & Rehabilitation Center.

Legislators voted on the contentious merger following a three-hour meeting Tuesday evening at the Cayuga-Onondaga Board of Cooperative Educational Services building in Aurelius. The meeting included an hour's worth of comments and questions from a more than 50-member audience.

Before legislators voted on the merger, Bruce Buchanan, CEO of Loretto, a Syracuse elder care provider, explained what the merger would look like.

Under the merger, the Cayuga County Nursing Home and Mercy will cease to exist. Both organizations will combine services, working under a new organization owned and operated by Loretto.

Buchanan said most of the $19.9 million HEAL Grant — awarded to Mercy by the state Department of Health last July — will be used to transform Mercy's existing building into a 300-bed facility.

Although Buchanan said he understood the sensitive nature of the merger, he said that if the county didn't act quickly, the grant would expire on Dec. 31.

"Time is of the essence," he said. "A lot of money needs to be spent between now and the end of the year."

As Mercy undergoes construction, Buchanan said the staff of both facilities will be needed. He explained Loretto will treat both facilities equally, keeping employees' seniority and pay rates in tact.

"We're going to need all the employees who are working at both facilities for a good long while, and maybe indefinitely," Buchanan said.

When asked why Loretto would want to take full monetary responsibility for the two struggling facilities, the CEO responded at length.

Under the merger, Buchanan said the Department of Health agreed to pay the new organization higher daily Medicaid rates for Cayuga County patients.

For example, the county nursing home and Mercy currently receive $150 and $130 per day respectively for every Medicaid patient. Under the deal, Buchanan said the state agreed to pay the new organization approximately $221 daily per beds used — an agreement that hinged on the merger.

Buchanan said representing a larger number of beds also gives Loretto a stronger bargaining chip.

"It allows us to have a stronger position when we negotiate with the insurance companies," he said.

After Loretto completed its presentation, attendees and legislators fired off a barrage of comments and questions.

Legislator Timothy Lattimore, R-Auburn, asked if the new organization would limit Medicaid admissions, explaining he wanted to ensure all Cayuga County residents were offered quality care, "regardless of ability to pay."

Buchanan responded quickly.

"Absolutely not," he said. "Loretto will keep the doors open to all."

Attendees repeatedly asked legislators to consider keeping the two facilities separate. Multiple speakers expressed fears that the quality of care — and availability of care — would suffer under the merger.

Nancy Jones, a nursing home employee, said she wanted to ensure all her residents would have a place at the new facility.

"Cayuga County's our family too, so we want to make sure they're taken care of," she said.

When asked why he supported the merger when so many nursing home residents expressed displeasure with the proposal, Legislative Chairman Mike Chapman, R-Cato, said he wanted to do what was best for the majority of county residents. But the vote, he said, was far from easy.

"This is a very heart-wrenching decision," Chapman said. "We realize fully that this is about a lot more than numbers on a balance sheet."

Legislator Cynthia Aikman, D-Auburn, agreed, stating that the county needed to consider more than just Cayuga County Nursing Home residents.

"My constituents also live at Mercy, so I need to represent those people and their families as well," Aikman said. "We have a moral obligation to think of all of us."

With the lengthy discussion at an end, the Legislature put the merger to a vote. Legislators Tucker Whitman, R-Martville; Mark Farrell, D-Weedsport; Joseph Bennett, D-Auburn; Steve Barski, D-Auburn; and Timothy Lattimore, R-Auburn, voting against the merger.

The Sennett facility will officially be transferred to the new organization on Jan. 1. After construction is completed and residents move into Mercy, the building will be transferred back to the county.

Staff writer Samantha House can be reached at 282-2282 or Follow her on Twitter @Citizen_House.

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