Stop the bleeding 

St. Patrick Hospital announces job cuts, but few details

Despite efforts by St. Patrick Hospital and its parent company, Providence Health & Services, to quell rumors of impending layoffs, speculation regarding significant staff reductions and the future of its Life Flight operations persist. The Independent spoke with two former employees affected by the cuts, as well as representatives from the Montana Nurses Association who are aware of the hospital’s intent to sell its emergency air transportation.

“It’s not just one particular group that’s been affected,” says one employee who was recently laid off and requested anonymity for fear it may impact her future job prospects. “Everybody’s been affected by this.”

Officials from St. Patrick Hospital declined to comment for this story. So far, the hospital has only acknowledged the layoffs in a press release sent late Friday, Nov. 22, that announced it is “aggressively working to save nearly $5 million between now and the end of March, 2014” at St. Pat’s and other related locations.

“We’re hearing that there are rumors about cuts and layoffs and want to speak directly to our community and employees with facts,” said Providence’s Western Montana Chief Executive Jeff Fee in the release.

Fee went on to state that “restructuring” and “targeted reductions” have impacted hospital staff, but did not specify how many jobs have been or will be cut. “It’s a painful transition, but one that cannot be avoided if we expect an improved healthcare delivery system that is also more affordable,” he said.

With approximately 1,773 employees, St. Patrick Hospital is the second-largest employer in the city of Missoula, behind the University of Montana. The nonprofit admitted more than 7,900 patients in 2011, with approximately 95 percent coming from the facility’s 17-county service area. The Montana Attorney General’s Office reports the hospital’s 2010 operating revenues at more than $230 million.

St. Pat’s isn’t the only area hospital adjusting to a changing health care industry. The Missoulian reported in October that Community Medical Center eliminated 20 positions and furloughed additional workers in an effort to cut $3 million in costs. Community spokesman Geoff Peddicord says CEO Steve Carlson is not giving interviews on the matter, partly because St. Patrick Hospital’s silence on its restructuring unfairly focuses press coverage on Community Medical Center.

While official information has been limited, some details of St. Pat’s changes have emerged. In the hospital’s press release, Fee called Life Flight “an extraordinarily important service to the Western Montana area.” He also said “the rapidly changing, competitive landscape of patient transport coupled with the financial pressures the industry is facing has led many health systems to look at alternative models to ensure continuity of safe, high quality, sustainable patient transport.”

Robin Haux, labor director of the Montana Nurses Association, confirms that the hospital is looking to sell its Life Flight service.

click to enlarge St. Patrick Hospital announced a $5 million restructuring that sources say will include selling its Life Flight service to an outside company. - PHOTO COURTESY ST. PATRICK HOSPITAL
  • photo courtesy St. Patrick Hospital
  • St. Patrick Hospital announced a $5 million restructuring that sources say will include selling its Life Flight service to an outside company.

“MNA has not been notified of any potential or upcoming nursing layoffs, except for Life Flight, but that is a department change,” she says. “They are looking to sell Life Flight itself, but we don’t know what will happen and we don’t know who they are trying to sell it to.”

While MNA has not been notified of nursing layoffs, others have confirmed staffing cuts. One former employee who worked at the hospital for more than 15 years says St. Pat’s began offering early retirement to “non-essential” staffers in the summer. The employee, who requested anonymity because he signed a non-disclosure agreement, accepted a severance package that included three months’ pay with benefits and a lump sum based on years of service.

“It was not a great place to be anymore and a lot of people were angry,” he says. “The face of the hospital was changing. Then the severance package came up and I was looking to move on and start a new chapter.”

The former employee says that after offering an early retirement option to qualifying staff, he believes the hospital started cutting jobs.

MNA says it maintains a good working relationship with St. Pat’s and will continue to monitor changes at the hospital.

“We haven’t seen this restructuring plan, but the health care environment is calling for rapid change,” says Lori Chovanak, MNA’s executive director. “When you say people are afraid to go on the record, that puts red flags up all over for me. It is very concerning and it is good for us to know, because transparency is key to making sure that there is a healthy work environment conducive to good patient care.”

That same trepidation filters down to local government leaders.

“I am very concerned when people get laid off in Missoula, because there are not that many high-paying jobs in this town,” says Missoula City Councilman Jon Wilkins, who chairs the Public Safety and Health Committee. “I do think to a point it is [the hospital’s] responsibility to provide information on this. If they are having financial troubles or restructuring, then I think the public has a right to know, though I am a strong supporter of St. Pat’s, too.”

Wilkins says until more information is made available he’s in the same boat as the general public.

“Like everyone else, I am getting information from people I know at the hospital,” he says.

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