Hospitals in Northern New York have long faced financial challenges.
But the novel coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated these problems. Circumstances led to declining revenue streams.
The state imposed restrictions on elective surgeries. Many people also expressed concerns over potentially being infected if they visited health care facilities. Patient volumes dropped as a result, so hospitals had to respond.
On April 10, Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center in Ogdensburg announced it furloughed nearly 70 employees; it said it had to place about 170 additional staff members on unpaid leave a week later. Samaritan Medical Center in Watertown said in mid-April that it would furlough about 230 employees.
Lewis County Health System placed 35 staff members on unpaid leave this month after losing nearly $2 million in March. Carthage Area Hospital revealed April 17 that it was reducing its staff by 20 percent, which affected 83 employees. St. Lawrence Health System placed about 400 employees on furlough.
“At this time, we are not sure when we will be returning to normal operations,” said Richard A. Duvall, chief executive officer and president of Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center. “In the interim, we plan to move employees to meet new areas of need. … It may be necessary for some staff to serve in a different role to best serve our patients. This will allow us to optimize our well-trained staff. … These tough decisions are inevitable during our strategic, fluid and dynamic response to the pandemic’s impact on operations.”
“It’s a devastating thing no one wants to do,” said Taylour Scanlin, marketing director and spokeswoman for Carthage Area Hospital.
“We anticipate bringing all staff back to full capacity as quickly as we can to maintain the strength of our health care system,” Thomas H. Carman, president and CEO of Samaritan, said in a letter to hospital employees. “This is not a long-term plan, and this is not a layoff. We anticipate bringing back all staff when we can stabilize our operations.”
These were very difficult decisions, but they’ve been necessary. These hospitals had to reduce their personnel costs to balance the reductions in revenues that they’ve experienced.
Fortunately for some of them, federal funds made available have resulted in these cuts being reversing. And Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that April 21 that elective surgeries may resume if hospitals meet certain criteria.
“Elective outpatient surgeries and treatments will resume on April 28 in hospitals with capacity over 25 percent and if the county has seen fewer than 10 new coronavirus hospitalizations over the past 10 days,” a Times story reported April 21. “If a hospital or county that resumed elective treatment has a surge in virus cases and exceeds those thresholds, elective treatment will cease, according to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office. Patients must test negative for COVID-19 before receiving any elective treatment. The state Department of Health will issue further guidelines.”
The Paycheck Protection Program — approved by Congress last month as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — allowed Carthage Area Hospital to bring all its employees back to work. And federal legislation signed into law last week will make $75 billion available to hospitals across the nation.
Many medical facilities do not qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program because they have more than 500 employees. The federal government should continue to steer funding to health care centers caught in the too-small-to-be-big and too-big-to-qualify-as-small categories.
This is an unprecedented problem and requires unprecedented measures to resolve. We’re pleased that steps have been taken to restore what local hospitals have lost and hope this signals an upward trend in their revenues. If we ever needed such a phenomenon, it’s now.