A sale could fetch $16 million and stop the drain on finances, said county spokesman Ralph Shrom.
"From our perspective, everyone on this board was elected on a promise that they would reduce taxes . . . ," he said. "There's nothing that says counties have to run nursing homes."
Most of the nearly 400 people who attended a hearing on the proposed sale last week vehemently disagreed. Their emotional pleas to "save Buttonwood" had overtones of the national debate over government's role in helping those who need care.
"Buttonwood was instructed by the county for many, many years to take in people who have no place to go," said Ken Goldstein, a former medical director at Buttonwood for 20 years. "Sometimes, they are living in filth at home, and there is nowhere for the patient to go." He described it as a "safety net" that should not be sacrificed.
Ruth Stotsenburg, president of the county chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, worried that if the hospital were privatized, "the county will no longer have any control" over the care. Medicare has rated Buttonwood a four-star facility for its health care and safety, with five stars being the highest a facility can receive.
Shrom confirmed the rating and said Buttonwood has had a good reputation.
The patients "think of us as family," said Christine Randolph, one of 319 hospital employees. "It breaks my heart that this is happening."
Many in the crowd at the Burlington County College cafeteria in Pemberton wore red T-shirts that said "People not Profits" and toted signs that said "Don't Sell Out Buttonwood." No one spoke in favor of a sale.
A second hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the freeholder meeting room at the county's Administration Building in Mount Holly.
Deputy Freeholder Director Joseph Donnelly was the only one of the five freeholders who attended the three-hour hearing. He said he was there to listen and did not answer questions.
If the sale is approved, he said, the buyer will have to agree that every "long-term resident" at the hospital will remain. He also said the freeholders must "be sensitive to our taxpayers."
On Tuesday, Donnelly said in an interview that the auction was being held to learn the hospital's worth and the qualifications of the bidders.
"We're not committed to selling the facility" at this time, he said. "We as a county are faced with hard choices. . . . This decision won't be easy to make."
The hospital, which has 170 nursing-care beds and 30 psychiatric beds and is 98 percent occupied, costs about $25 million to operate, with Medicare and Medicaid paying the bulk.
Shrom said 82 percent to 85 percent of the patients were indigent and eligible for Medicaid. But with declining reimbursement rates, he said, the county likely will pick up a larger share in the future.
Last month, Cumberland County sold its nursing home for $14 million, Shrom said. At least four other counties in the state also have sold their hospitals because of high operating costs.
"Good things cost money," said Ken Eshelman, of Moorestown, who said he has friends at Buttonwood. "This jewel involves lives."
"I am blessed to be at Buttonwood. You shouldn't sell it," said Aubrey Knox, a patient whose wheelchair was rolled up to the dais.
The consultants' reports recommended the sale, saying the facility has been operating at a deficit for 10 years. The county also could realize up to $500,000 a year in property taxes from a private owner, the reports said.
Nancy Jamison, a physical therapist who has a "dear friend" at Buttonwood, said the county has misplaced priorities.
"We don't need some hoity-toity library or to upgrade our walking trails all around the county," Jamison said, referring to a county library expansion and the acquisition of open space for recreation. "If my mother was here, she would say, 'Shame on you guys' for considering selling Buttonwood."
Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224, firstname.lastname@example.org,
or @JanHefler on Twitter. Read her
blog at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.