After about a minute of cajoling, an auctioneer in Mount Holly gave up Thursday and declared Burlington County's 100-year-old Buttonwood Hospital "gone" to the lone bidder that offered $15 million for the 200-bed geriatric and psychiatric facility.
Ocean Healthcare, a Lakewood, N.J., company that owns and operates 15 nursing home-rehabilitation centers across New Jersey, offered only the minimum acceptable bid set by the county freeholders. A second prequalified bidder remained quiet during the auction.
The freeholders, who did not attend the auction, have reserved the right to review the bid within the next 30 days before voting on whether to accept it. They are considering a sale because the hospital has been operating at a deficit for 10 years and is expected to lose $4.5 million this year.
Zalman Drew, chief operating officer of the Ocean County company that submitted the bid, said his firm runs nursing homes, assisted-living complexes, and rehabilitation centers. Most are in North Jersey.
"We feel there's a lot of potential for this home - we want to save Buttonwood," he said, referring to the protest signs and red balloons that greeted him when he entered the Burlington County Administration Building, the site of the auction.
Two dozen balloons, tied to traffic signs and posts, stated "Have a Heart - Save Buttonwood," while hospital employees in similarly messaged red shirts milled about before the auction.
At two public hearings last month, hundreds of employees, patients, families, friends, and health-care advocates argued against the proposed sale of the hospital, which mostly serves the poor. The hospital has 170 nursing-home beds and a 30-bed psychiatric unit.
After the auction, Adam Liebtag, president of CWA 1036, which represents most of the 319 employees, said he was "angry and disappointed" that the freeholders went ahead with the bidding. "It's amazing how quickly you can sell out a 100-year-old operation and put everyone's future at risk," he said, suggesting that jobs and patients' care are now in limbo.
He also labeled the bid "lowball" and said it was not enough to sacrifice a highly rated public hospital.
"Obviously we would have liked to see more competition," said Ralph Shrom, the freeholders' spokesman. "We had 10 to 12 potential bidders who actually toured Buttonwood over the past couple of weeks."
Shrom said the freeholders would weigh "whether they want to sell this asset or find other alternatives for trying to address the red ink at this facility."
Tryko Partners, of Brick Township, Ocean County, attended the auction but ignored the auctioneer's attempts to get them to bid.
Drew said that Ocean Healthcare plans to retain all of the patients and as many of the 319 employees as possible. "We are going to meet with all the employees, and we anticipate minimal turnover," he said.
However, Ocean Healthcare opted not to submit a bid based on recognizing the union and keeping all of the employees. The freeholders suggested the option but left it up to the bidders. Liebtag said the union hopes to meet with any new ownership.
Drew said that when his company acquired Mercer County's public geriatric home in 2010, it kept all of the patients and all of the employees who "wanted to stay with us."
The Times of Trenton reported at that time that the 150-bed home went for $7.7 million in August 2010. The home had 148 employees, and Drew said that most remained after his company took it over.
Drew said that his company planned to expand and improve Buttonwood if the sale is approved.