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Montco ending assisted-living effort

The last 60 people living in Pennsylvania's only county-operated assisted-living home will be forced out this summer when Montgomery County shuts down the facility.

The last 60 people living in Pennsylvania's only county-operated assisted-living home will be forced out this summer when Montgomery County shuts down the facility.

They will instead live in private assisted-living centers, at taxpayer expense, for the rest of their lives, as the county attempts to shave its budget by privatizing its experiment as an assisted-living provider.

Although Montgomery County spent $750,000 a decade ago to renovate Norristown's former Sacred Heart Hospital as an assisted-living center, officials decided they can no longer afford to spend $2 million a year running the place.

"It didn't work out the way we anticipated it would work," said County Commissioners Chairman James R. Matthews, who was a commissioner when the facility opened in 2000 and voted Thursday to shut it down. "It was a good pioneering effort."

When the facility was first conceived in the 1990s, private assisted-living facilities - where residents have meals and social services provided - were scarce for Montgomery County's then-booming elderly population, Matthews said. But they have since proliferated, making the county's facility appear an unnecessary expense.

There was also the looming threat of new state regulations that would, as of 2010, require overhauling the residential space in the old Sacred Heart building to meet requirements for room sizes and amenities, such as kitchenettes.

"We've done the best we can, but it no longer meets state requirements," said James Maza, the county's deputy chief operating officer.

When Montgomery County first made plans to privatize assisted-living care in December, the move was expected to save about $1 million a year, half the cost of operating the Sacred Heart space.

New admissions were halted, and the population dwindled from 71 to 60, as residents left for personal or medical reasons during six months of uncertainty over the facility's future. The county eventually found three agencies willing to take its tenants. The county estimates the arrangement will save $902,820 a year.

In coming weeks, the residents will be asked to choose whether they want to move to another Norristown facility or homes in Blue Bell or Lafayette Hill. More alternatives could be added later, Montgomery County officials said. The officials declined to allow a reporter to visit the county facility, which at its peak housed 82 residents.

Wherever they go, the current county-facility residents will enjoy a perk: County subsidies will allow them to stay in the private facilities for the same $2,300 a month the county charged, though the private facilities normally cost more. The county's residents who pay even less because of limited resources will continue to pay what they can afford.

"Our contract goes to these 60 . . . for life," County Solicitor Barry Miller said.

Many of the residents will end up with newer rooms where their roommate is farther than a curtain away and the bathtub is closer than the end of the hallway, both improvements on the current arrangement. The change will place most of the residents in a more apartmentlike setting than the retooled hospital space could provide.

"Physically, there's no comparison," Miller said.