Samaritan asks city for financial aid

Staff manage their lab station inside Watertown’s drive-up COVID-19 testing site in December at the Samaritan Health and Wellness Plaza on outer Washington Street. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — Samaritan Medical Center is asking the city for financial aid from some of its $22 million American Rescue Plan funding to offset Samaritan’s losses caused by the pandemic.

In a Jan. 5 letter, Samaritan President and Chief Executive Officer Thomas H. Carman outlined the need for help, writing that COVID-19 has caused “unpredictable turbulence that continues to challenge all levels of our organization” as coronavirus infections drastically increase in the north county.

In his letter to City Manager Kenneth A. Mix, Mr. Carman said SMC faces “primary challenges” as a direct result of the health crisis, including significant revenue losses, a staffing shortage and a decrease in patient satisfaction caused by increased wait times tied to the staffing shortage.

Mr. Carman is not asking for a specific dollar amount in the funding request, Mr. Mix said.

He’s asking for funding to offset costs of COVID testing that the hospital provides to the community and for increased costs of hiring travel nurses.

The City Council is expected to address the funding request at Tuesday night’s council meeting. The letter has been put on the agenda.

Last spring, the city was awarded $22 million in American Rescue Plan funding from the federal $1.9 trillion COVID relief package.

In August, the former City Council decided that the American Rescue money should only be spent on city projects, and set aside the first $8 million it received for street and water projects.

Mr. Mix will ask the new council, consisting of new members Patrick J. Hickey and Cliff G. Olney III, how they want to respond to Samaritan’s funding request.

Mr. Mix wants “to reaffirm the policy” that was passed by the former council’s 3-2 vote in August, he said.

According to the letter, the funding request would help offset Samaritan’s $165,016 cost projected this year in providing a COVID-19 testing site.

Samaritan provided up to 300 appointment-only, drive-up COVID tests per week last year and about 84,000 through last March. The tests ended in August but resumed in November after COVID cases increased. The hospital had not budgeted for the COVID tests prior to the pandemic, and they were an unexpected expense.

Mr. Carman wrote that Samaritan has been hit hard by the need to hire travel nurses to offset staff shortages during the pandemic.

Samaritan will continue to rely on hiring travel nurses, who work in short-term roles at hospitals and clinics and help staff deal with more job-related stress caused by the pandemic. The cost of the travel nurse program is projected to be $5.125 million in 2022.

Mr. Carman hopes to meet with the city about his request “to offer a formal proposal for funding in the near future,” he wrote.

The state’s declaration of another state of emergency on Nov. 26 “is evidence that the public health crisis has remained a very real and significant issue, especially for our area’s healthcare facilities,” Mr. Carman wrote.

During the height of the pandemic in 2020, Samaritan administrators anticipated losses of nearly $10 million resulting from increased expenses and a decline in patient volume, according to Mr. Carman’s letter.

They made several “difficult decisions” to offset those losses, including temporarily furloughing 10% of Samaritan’s workforce, establishing a 15% pay cut to staff and closing medical satellite offices in communities.

Samaritan also was one of two hospitals in the state that didn’t receive funding through the second round of the American Rescue Plan program.

U.S. Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, arranged for $2.5 million in federal funding, but it’s not enough to help the medical center through the health care crisis, Mr. Carman wrote.

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