North Coast hospitals face rocky transition

  • Jeff Taylor of Sebastopol has vital signs taken by RN Amanda Rainey at Palm Drive Hospital in Sebastopol, Friday Nov. 22, 2013. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2013

At a time when Obamacare is being blamed for a range of economic woes, local heath care executives say the new law is part of a powerful mix of forces revolutionizing their industry and constricting budgets.

Some executives attribute recent layoffs at several North Coast hospitals to the Affordable Care Act's cuts in Medicare reimbursements, along with cutthroat competition and advances in medical technology.

Employment at U.S. hospitals peaked in April at 4.84 million. But hospitals have been cutting jobs this summer and fall, shedding 9,000 jobs in May and an additional 4,400 jobs in July, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The layoffs started on the North Coast in July, when St. Joseph Health in Sonoma County, which runs both Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and Petaluma Valley Hospital, said it would eliminate 26 jobs at Memorial and 11 in Petaluma.

In August, Ukiah Valley Medical Center notified employees that 18 positions would be eliminated or left unfilled, though five of the affected employees were to be switched to different positions. Another five employees had their hours reduced, according to an internal hospital memo detailing the cuts.

A little more than a week ago, Healdsburg District Hospital announced that it would cut its workforce by 8 percent, letting go of 30 employees.

The next ax is expected to fall in Sebastopol, where Palm Drive Hospital executives are embarking on a painful effort to "right-size" the hospital from 37 inpatient beds to 14 beds.

The hospital currently is exploring which positions, and how many, will be affected. Officials are focusing on jobs associated with inpatient care, which covers a large swath of positions at any hospital, said Palm Drive CEO Tom Harlan.

"The uncertainty having to do with Obamacare is a factor" driving the hospital's assessment, Harlan said.

In addition, hospitals are keeping fewer patients overnight as advances in technology and medicine continue to transform the industry, leaving them with an increasing number of empty beds.

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