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MultiCare announces furloughs as region’s major health providers deal with coronavirus financial woes

UPDATED: Thu., May 7, 2020

An isolation tent has been set up at the MutliCare Deaconess Hospital Emergency Room entrance on March 23 in Spokane. MultiCare has announced furloughs for 6,000 employees, about 350 of whom work in the Inland Northwest, as part of their efforts to cut costs amid declining revenues due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
An isolation tent has been set up at the MutliCare Deaconess Hospital Emergency Room entrance on March 23 in Spokane. MultiCare has announced furloughs for 6,000 employees, about 350 of whom work in the Inland Northwest, as part of their efforts to cut costs amid declining revenues due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

MultiCare Health Systems, which operates Valley and Deaconess hospitals in Spokane, will furlough 6,000 employees mostly outside clinical settings, the provider announced Wednesday.

The move is intended to offset declining revenues prompted by changes to the health care system in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Providence Health & Services, which operates Sacred Heart Medical Center and Holy Family Hospital, has seen the same trend.

Elective surgeries were prohibited as part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s orders to stay home and reserve patient beds for people with COVID-19. Hospitals are also reporting fewer patients seeking care because of concerns about contracting the virus, despite sanitization efforts.

“The goal of these difficult decisions is to ensure that we can return to a solid fiscal position,” Bill Robertson, president and CEO of MultiCare, said in a Wednesday statement announcing the furloughs. “So that we may continue in our mission of partnering for healing and a healthy future – and remain the long-term health care partner the communities we serve require us to be.”

The furloughed workers will mainly come from the administrative side of the company, including those in the human resources, technological support and finance sectors, Marce Edwards, executive director of corporate communications at MultiCare, said in an email. Of the 6,000 workers affected, “roughly 1,000” are clinical workers involved in scheduling and other areas of patient care “that’s currently experiencing lower demand,” Edwards wrote.

The furloughed workers include about 350 MultiCare employees “in the Inland Northwest,” Edwards said.

MultiCare reported a $160 million financial loss as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The provider said the furloughs, which require workers to forgo 17 working shifts through the beginning of next year, will begin next week and are intended to avoid layoffs due to financial difficulties.

The Tacoma News Tribune, which first reported the planned furloughs at the Tacoma-based provider, reported the furloughs are intended to save the company $28 million, citing an internal memo obtained by the newspaper.

Furloughed workers will be allowed to take advantage of any paid time off they’ve accrued during the mandated time away, according to a news release from the provider. They’ll also receive health benefits, but will be required to pay their share of premiums during the furlough.

MultiCare joins a long list of hospitals that have resorted to furloughs to save money at a time when health care spending has dwindled, even as the nation’s attention turns to the front-line workers providing care for those with the coronavirus.

Becker’s Hospital Review, a trade publication tracking hospital furloughs, reported Thursday that more than 240 systems nationwide had announced furloughs of workers.

Jameson Blue, who has served as a CAT scan technician at Deaconess Hospital for the past 12 years, said MultiCare has communicated that the furloughs will not affect front-line workers. Blue, a member of the labor group SEIU 1199NW Healthcare, said unionized health care workers had agreed in March with the provider to terms that would allow management to send them home if there was less demand in their department, up to a capped limit of time off.

“My workload has been varied,” Blue said. “There’s been days where it’s been slow, but days where it’s really peaked. It all depends on the emergency room.

“I haven’t heard anything to cause concern,” he added of potential furloughs or layoffs for health care workers.

Providence has not announced any furloughs, but hasn’t ruled them out, according to a statement from Beth Hegde, communications manager for the provider.

“It is one of many cost-reduction strategies that we are evaluating,” she wrote.

Providence anticipates its revenues have fallen by nearly 40% as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, through cancellation of elective surgeries, converting urgent care clinics into testing centers for COVID-19 and other changes. As with MultiCare, Providence has announced reductions in pay to executive staff, a reduction in new hires and adaptive staffing as a way to save money.

The Washington State Hospital Association is urging patients not to put off necessary care at health care facilities in the state over fear of the virus. Representatives for Providence and MultiCare emphasized that patients with respiratory symptoms are isolated and receive personal protective equipment upon arriving at their facilities, and that they’re clean and safe for patients needing care.

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