Layoffs, more changes ahead at Westerly Hospital

Westerly - A decline in revenues due to fewer patients so far this year led to Westerly Hospital's decision to lay off 29 employees, reduce the hours of 59 others and change work schedules for remaining staff, hospital officials said.

The actions announced Tuesday morning are the result of recommendations from Carpédia, an Oakville, Ontario, management consulting firm hired by the hospital, on how to make hospital operations more cost-effective and efficient. The hospital retained Carpédia for about $1 million, hospital officials said, and six to eight consultants will continue to be at the hospital for the next several weeks to oversee implementation of the recommendations.

"This is a process that isn't over yet," said Jeanne LaChance, executive vice president. "We needed to take a big step back and look at how we were doing staffing, and be able to staff up and staff down to adjust to our volumes."

Inpatient volumes for March were 11 percent below the level budgeted for, and 9 percent below the fiscal 2010 level, according to Nick Stahl, hospital spokesman.

The layoffs and other cost-cutting measures are expected to reduce expenses by about $4 million, LaChance said. The 125-bed hospital employs about 859 full- and part-time employees, for a full-time equivalent work force of 613. It has ended each of the past seven years with expenses exceeding revenues, although it had been making progress toward closing the gap in recent years.

Margaret Austin, vice president of clinical services, said fewer than half of the employees who will be told starting today that they will lose their jobs work in direct patient care. The layoffs are in nursing, technical, supervisory, management and other positions, she said. Specific numbers for each are not yet available, she said.

In addition to the layoffs and schedule reductions, the hospital will also save money by eliminating vacant positions, requiring nurses to be "on call" so that staffing can be increased on an as-needed basis and shifting nurses and other clinical staff from 8- and 10- to 12-hour shifts. The longer shifts provide better continuity of care for patients, are more efficient because nurses spend less time completing shift change documentation and also reduce labor costs, Austin said.

"It takes less bodies to cover the same number of hours," she said. She added that 16 eight-hour positions will still be open for staff who prefer that schedule.

Unions representing nurses and other staff are raising objections to the hospital's actions, saying staff should have been consulted before the decisions became final.

"In one way or another all the nurses are being affected," said Jan Salsich, registered nurse and president of the United Nurses and Allied Professionals union. "We don't feel they have the right to push people into 12-hour shifts."

She fears experienced nurses who cannot work long shifts for family or health reasons will be forced to quit. The union has notified the hospital that it will file a grievance about the scheduling changes, she said. Union members are also being asked to wear stickers protesting the changes which read, "No Confidence in Incompetence," and "Management 75 Patients 45," referring to the total number of administrators compared to one day's patient census.

"We were promised input, and we were not given the opportunity," said Judy Lawrence, president of the union that represents service and maintenance workers. "We feel it's unfair for the hospital to target front-end staff and not management."

Debbie Quartella, an emergency department nurse, said her unit is slated to lose three nurses out of 21.

"We're a very close department," she said. "It feels like a family member is leaving."

Another nurse, Claudia Quinn, said morale is very poor.

"The atmosphere is so toxic," she said. "The management has been doing a lot of bullying and intimidation."

She and others said that despite low patient volumes on some days, overall it seems to them the hospital has been busy, and that they have been unable to obtain specific patient numbers from the administration. Quinn said staff reductions will threaten patient safety, while others said they felt "blindsided" by the hospital's actions.

"We're busy. We're not sitting around," Salsich said.

j.benson@theday.com

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