September 24, 2010 in City

Sacred Heart issues pink slips to 33 workers

By The Spokesman-Review

Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center has begun laying off employees, closing some programs and retooling the schedules of its employees.

Hospital managers announced the closure of several programs this week. The net jobs lost from these initial actions are 33.

Other cuts are looming as the hospital seeks $7 million in cost reductions.

Nurses and employees are worried that fewer employees will cut into the quality of patient care.

Elaine Couture, chief executive officer of Sacred Heart along with Providence Holy Family, said she doesn’t yet have a firm number of layoffs – despite days of speculation that put the number of lost jobs from dozens to the hundreds.

“There’s a very formalized process that begins with us letting the unions know of our intent to change schedules,” she said. That began this week and now the unions will look at the proposals and offer ideas of how to trim hours or restructure services.

One program that will be closed is the Cuddles & Care sick child day care that allowed employees to drop off ill children to work a shift. The program is off-campus and next to the St. Anne’s Family Center.

Another program to be cut is Maternity Support Services, which helps pregnant women with issues such as nutrition, consulting and social services regardless of ability to pay.

Other changes are coming, and reductions will be roughly split between labor, and supplies and services.

The hospital is not meeting budget expectations – though it remains on the plus side of the balance sheet.

Several scenarios have led to the money crunch, including a rising number of patients who can’t pay their medical bills. Called charity care, these write-offs have are consuming 6.8 percent of Sacred Heart’s annual budget of more than $700 million.

The hospital also is treating fewer patients. Last year at this time the hospital had about 625 patients every day. On Friday the patient count was 518.

Sacred Heart is locked in a suddenly competitive market for patients following Rockwood Clinic’s merger with Deaconess Medical Center late last year.

Rockwood had accounted for about one-in-four patients at Sacred Heart.

Many of those patients are now being sent to Deaconess.

Couture said Sacred Heart has been buoyed by greater admissions from other providers. She declined to comment on the affect of fewer patients from Rockwood – many of whom were insured.

She pointed to national and regional numbers that indicate the slumping economy has led to declines in elective surgeries as well as overall patient admissions.

The declines have not affected the workload of employees, according to the Washington State Nurses Association. They contend nurses are busy, often work through breaks, and that cutbacks would make workings conditions more difficult.

Couture said it’s too early to settle on an overall number of layoffs until the unions representing registered nurses, technical workers and service workers offer input and talk to members about shaving hours, voluntary departures and other cost savings.

She said fewer patients may be the norm for years to come, a marked departure from the hospitals experience of the past few years when patient numbers soared and left executives clamoring for more beds and service expansions.

“It’s hard to understand everything that going on,” she said, “but the change downward in admission rates may be what’s best for the health care system.”

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