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Kevin Riordan: More than cash is at stake as Burlington County freeholders contemplate selling Buttonwood Hospital

What's now called Buttonwood Hospital has been a place of refuge - and last resort - for the ailing and the elderly of Burlington County for 200 years.

What's now called Buttonwood Hospital has been a place of refuge - and last resort - for the ailing and the elderly of Burlington County for 200 years.

The doors of this well-regarded institution, founded in 1801 as the county's "alms house" for the poor and asylum for the "insane," stayed open even during the Depression.

But now the county Board of Freeholders, eager to get out of the health-care business and fulfill campaign promises to cut taxes, wants to auction off the 200-bed Pemberton Township facility. The county expects to get at least $15 million for Buttonwood, where a 2011 operating deficit of $4 million is expected to be $4.5 million this year.

"I'm praying for us," says Joan Brochu, 63, a diabetic who has lived in Buttonwood's nursing-home section for six years. She's also president of the residents' council.

"Everyone agrees the treatment they give us is outstanding," Brochu adds. "We're all worried that the promise won't be kept."

That would be the collective vow made by the freeholders - who individually have kept a rather low public profile about Buttonwood - that any new owner would have to abide by certain conditions.

If a sale goes through after bids are opened March 1, the new owner will have to agree to continue caring for all current residents for the next decade, says county spokesman Ralph Shrom. And during that time, more than half the beds must be set aside for patients from the county or those on Medicare or Medicaid.

"I just hope and pray it stays open," says Neisha Barnes, 51, of Browns Mills. Her husband, Timothy, a paraplegic, has been a patient since 2005.

"If he wasn't getting the proper care," Barnes adds, "I wouldn't be able to sleep at night."

"It's definitely a sad time," says Eve Cullinan, Buttonwood's administrator for the last nine years. "Our hope is that someone with high regard for quality of care will take over if the freeholders decide to sell. I know they don't want to [turn] it over to just anyone who can write a check."

Adam Liebtag, president of Local 1036 of the Communications Workers of America, which represents more than 300 employees at Buttonwood, challenges the notion that the patients are a major concern for the county.

"It's incomprehensible to me that their priority is quality of care while they're pursuing . . . a sale," he says. Buttonwood could generate revenue by opening a physical rehabilitation unit, providing outpatient or inpatient services to veterans, and more aggressively leasing space on its campus, Liebtag says.

These and other ideas "have all been discussed," Shrom says. "Buttonwood is a 25-year-old facility attached to an older building that would have to be gutted in order to do anything besides what we're already doing there."

Adding programs like those suggested by the union would be costly to a county that already carries from $8 million to $9 million in debt for the property, he said.

Numbers are one thing. But the relationship between Buttonwood and the community is no less important for being harder to quantify.

Buttonwood exemplifies the Quaker-related compassion that has influenced the county since the 17th century. It's a testament, as Assemblyman Herbert Conaway (D., Burlington) says, "to the belief that government should provide for people in desperate need."

Union members worried about saving their jobs aren't the only opponents. A "no sale" petition drive (5,000 signatures so far) and a campaign called also are under way.

Patients and staff talk about a family feeling at the place, one likely to fade under private management, however professional.

Local residents with no personal ties to the facility, like Peg Kinsell, worry about "the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters who don't know yet that they will need Buttonwood" someday.

"I basically don't see the upside of privatization," the Pemberton Township resident adds. "Once [Buttonwood] is gone, it will be too late."

Kinsell is right.

If Burlington County sells Buttonwood, it will lose more than a chunk of real estate. It will lose a piece of its history. And perhaps a bit of its soul.