Hospital sees staff reductions as part of cost-cutting efforts
By Patrick McArdle
STAFF WRITER | April 24,2013
BENNINGTON — In the past five months, Southwestern Vermont Health Care has cut about 40 full-time equivalent positions in an attempt to reduce its budget expenses by 15 to 20 percent.
There may be another $1 million in cuts on the way, according to communications director Kevin Robinson.
The cuts do not mean that 40 employees have lost their jobs. Some employees have had their hours reduced and in other cases, open positions have not been filled.
Robinson said the staffing changes have been spread throughout the health care system and haven’t been confined to Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, the hospital in Bennington.
In November, Thomas Dee, president and CEO of the health care system, said there would be an effort to cut expenses based on expected cuts to Medicare payments.
Last week, Dee told Gov. Peter Shumlin at a business roundtable that cuts which came from the federal sequestration, specifically a 2 percent cut to Medicare payments, would cost SVHC about $1 million in revenue annually.
Robinson said health care system officials are working to balance staffing levels with the need to deliver good care to patients.
“We’re very carefully looking at our workforce. We’re looking at the ... number of patients who get care at the hospital. We’re trying to do that in a very strategic way so we don’t affect the services that we offer,” he said Monday.
Robinson said hospital administrators were considering all open positions to be sure that it’s “absolutely necessary” they be filled. Some employees are being offered early retirement or voluntary reduction of hours.
In a letter to the community and employees in November, Dee said SVHC was trying to cut its expenses by $4 million to $5 million. He also cautioned that the effect would be “fewer hospital jobs, even as we add jobs in other health care settings.”
Robinson said that five months later, the health care system had cut about $4 million.
“We feel that we need to push ahead and eliminate another $1 million, maybe even go beyond that, depending on what happens ... about the sequester,” he said.
The federal sequester, or funding cuts, isn’t the only problem facing the health care system. Robinson said the hospital was seeing a reduction in the number of people using its outpatient services, which was also reducing revenue.
Robinson said the general economic downturn and insurance plans with high deductibles might be the reason that fewer people are seeking care.
SVMC also benefits from a federal program that assists “Medicare-dependent hospitals” and provides special reimbursements for hospitals that have a very high percentage of patients covered by Medicare. However, that program was scheduled to end in 2012. It was extended for a year but is now scheduled to end in September.
There are also concerns about the Green Mountain Care Board and what that board might allow for Vermont hospital budgets in the future.
The budget challenges are also coming at a time when the health care system, like health care providers across the United States, are trying to move from a system where payments are based on helping the sick and injured to payments that reward efforts to keeping patients healthy.
Southwestern Vermont Health Care is the largest private employer in Bennington County. It’s annual expense budget is about $160 million.