State budget woes force hospital to make staffing cuts

With state officials attempting to address a $2 billion budget shortfall, and the near certainty that medical facilities will be forced to absorb huge revenue cutbacks, Sunnyside Community Hospital isn't waiting for the ax to fall.

The hospital's CEO, Jon Smiley, is planning for the worst and this week announced that steps have already been taken to reduce expenses here.

"We start the year faced with unprecedented challenge," Smiley informed his staff.

"No business reliant upon state and federal funding can expect to operate business as usual anymore," Smiley said.

He added that Sunnyside Community Hospital and its clinics have made some tough decisions. Those decisions include eliminating nine positions, and having each employee accept a 4.5 percent cut in salary. Benefit packages, too, will be pared, although as to what extent hasn't yet been publicly announced.

The only employees at Sunnyside Community Hospital who won't be affected are the registered nurses. The RN's, who number between 70 and 80, are represented by a union and their contracts, basically, are untouchable.

Feeling less of an impact, too, will be the mid-level providers at the hospital's clinics in Sunnyside and Grandview. The clinic's physician's assistants and nurse practitioners won't have their paychecks cut by 4.5 percent, but there will be cuts made to some of the benefits they receive.

Hospital spokesman Tom Lathen this morning (Thursday) explained that in all, 11 people are directly affected. One hospital employee was reassigned, another was offered reassignment but chose to resign, and nine staff members have been let go.

Of the nine who lost their jobs, the most visible position cut was that of the Sunnyside Community Hospital Foundation director, currently held by Jonica Bridges.

The foundation has served as a fundraising arm of the hospital. Lathen said he and fellow staff member Sandra Linde will together "...pick up the duties" that Bridges was charged with during her tenure there.

The plans right now, said Lathen, are for the foundation to continue sponsoring its long-running golf tournament, as well as the extremely popular Festival of Trees fundraiser in late November.

Because of declining financial support, however, the foundation's "Evening in the Park" summer fundraiser has been cancelled.

The remaining eight people who lost their jobs at the hospital are either lab technicians or support personnel.

Lathen said the belt-tightening at the hospital also is due in part to declining patient the birthing center, in the emergency room and in the hospital lab.

"As an example, we didn't have our New Year's baby arrive here until yesterday (Jan. 4)," said Lathen. "I can't remember us ever going past the second of January before the first baby of the year was born."

In terms of the changes Lower Valley residents can expect to see when using the medical services offered at Sunnyside Community Hospital, they should be negligible.

"There were no doctors or nurses laid off," said Lathen, explaining that 24-hour, around-the-clock medical staff will be on hand to continue treating the needs of local residents, no matter the time of day.

Anticipated by hospital administrators is the way in which funding will be provided to hospitals, especially rural facilities. Lathen said there is a strong move afoot in Olympia to switch from a cost-based reimbursement plan to having diagnostic related groups deciding how much hospitals can be reimbursed for the services they provide. If the reimbursement figure is less than what it actually costs a hospital to treat a patient, basically said Lathen, the hospital has to absorb those costs.

Another change being considered that has a strong likelihood of being enacted is the type of coverage provided to Medicaid patients. On the table is the possibility of eliminating basic health services, and switching to an HMO system.

What this all means for Sunnyside Community Hospital, said Lathen, is the potential of losing $5 million in revenue from the state, annually.

Although lawmakers haven't yet decided where budget cuts will be made, it's certain, said Lathen, "There will be change. We just don't know how much."

In addressing hospital staff earlier this week, Smiley stressed that all possible alternatives were considered before the tough choice of eliminating positions was made.

"Our board has endorsed this plan as the most tolerable choice at a difficult time," Smiley told local hospital employees.

He also noted that Sunnyside Community Hospital's top priority this year " to make sure nothing we do affects the quality of care and the delivery of health care services to our Valley."

Lathen, this morning, added that the bottom line is Sunnyside Community Hospital believes in this community.

"We believe we can all ride out this storm together," he said.


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