Hospital employees on cutting board

Financial difficulties have Whidbey General Hospital employees worrying about their jobs.

Hospital administrators this week called for “voluntary staff reductions,” but in a series of meetings with staff, they were told that future cuts could become non-voluntary.

“I wish I could say no,” said hospital CEO Scott Rhine Thursday, speaking about possible mandatory job cuts next year. “But further non-voluntary reductions,” are possible.

At present, the hospital needs to save $292,000 through the voluntary plan that provides incentives for early retirement for managers and severance pay for others. People might take advantage of the plan, Rhine said, “if somebody is thinking about leaving.”

Interested employees have 45 days to leave voluntarily. At that point, the hospital’s publicly-elected board will decide if further cuts need to be made.

Doug Bishop, the hospital’s chief financial officer, described financial results from the first three quarters of this year as “disappointing.” The board’s policy is to keep a budget “threshold amount” at $3 million, and revenues to date leave the hospital $292,000 short of that goal.

Rhine said the threshold amount can be referred to as cash reserves or the rainy day fund, and it’s important to maintain its level. “It could be reduced for a short time, but long term our wages are not competitive and we can’t attract technicians, nurses, and buy new equipment,” he said.

The federal government’s to blame for the hospital’s fiscal plight, Rhine explained. Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements do not cover the cost of treating patients, he said. It’s a case he’s been arguing for months if not years, but efforts to change the system are bottlenecked in Congress.

Bishop, the financial officer, gives the example of certain Medicare patients who stay in the hospital up to 48 hours, and the hospital is reimbursed only $55 per day.

Hospital employees apparently support the administration’s explanation of the hospital’s problems. “At $55 a day you get thousands of dollars worth of care,” said Lorraine Kreps, a medical records technician. “You can’t get a motel room for $55 a day.”

Kreps has been a hospital employee for 22 years and has seen a number of financial ups and downs, but never this bad. “I’ve seen several cutbacks but it never involved employees,” she said Friday.

Carolyn Pape, the hospital’s employee recruitment coordinator, said news of the financial problems have made an impact on staff. “They’re sad, angry, frustrated,” she said. She agreed low federal reimbursements are to blame. “We’re facing the same challenges other hospitals are,” she said.

Kreps concurred, saying that smaller hospitals are most vulnerable. “We just feel it a little quicker,” she said.

Rhine said he sees no legislative relief on the horizon and he’s clearly concerned about the future as 2002 nears an end. “This is the first year we’ve been so far down this close to the end of the year,” he said. “As long as government reimbursement continues to lag, the hospital will need to adjust our expenses in order to maintain the viability of the overall hospital services.”

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