BRATTLEBORO - Just two days after unionized workers at the Brattleboro Retreat held an informational picket to draw attention to what the union has called deteriorating contract talks, the psychiatric hospital is announcing layoffs.
Retreat Senior Vice President of Government Relations Peter Albert said Wednesday that 31 positions will be eliminated at the Retreat due to what Albert says are projected deficits in 2012 and 2013.
"As a result of this current financial condition the Retreat will be implementing staff reductions in both administrative and clinical areas affecting both non-union and union positions," Albert said. "Any staff reductions are regrettable and very difficult for all of us given the incredible dedication that our employees have for their work on behalf of patient care."
The Retreat informed the union about the looming layoffs during contract talks Tuesday.
Jack Callaci, director of collective bargaining and organizing for United Nurses & Allied Professionals, which represents about 500 workers at the Retreat, said the layoffs highlight mismanagement among the hospital's administration. "For the past few years we have been told time and time again about how successful the Retreat has been, and now we find out they have squandered millions of dollars," Callaci said. "The programs they are getting rid of are the programs that used to set them apart. They are giving more money to paper-shuffling managers and eliminating counselors who work directly with patients."
The Retreat was notifying people about the layoffs throughout the day Wednesday.
Even though the Retreat has been at capacity over the past few months Albert said financial officials discovered a deficit only recently which could not be sustained with the current staffing in place.
According to Albert, payments on the approximately $8 million bond which funded recent renovations were coming due, and those payments were putting a severe strain on the budget.
Bond payments on the roof and infrastructure improvements are about $450,000 per month.
The bond was taken out for deferred maintenance to the roof and to other parts of the hospital, and the financial shortfall is not tied to the hospital's expansion that allows it to take in state hospital patients.
The state has been covering its obligations for the $5.3 million renovation to accommodate state hospital patients even though it is still waiting to hear from FEMA on funding to replace the hospital in Waterbury, Albert said.
Some of the layoffs will be in the therapeutic services department and include a movement therapist, an art therapist, and counselors who lead outside activities.
The Retreat is seeing more patients with acute needs who demand more intense care and Albert said the hospital had to decide where it would be able to cut services.
"We are not saying that the therapeutic services are not valuable, because they are, but when you have limited resources you have to make difficult decisions about where your resources should go," said Albert. "It is never a good time to do something like this. We looked at the numbers and projected forward and realized we were not on a sustainable path. We hope that by realigning our resources we stand a better chance of going forward into the future."
Albert also points out that while the hospital has been profitable over the past two years, it typically sees only a small margin of less than 2 percent.
And the profit has come after about 10 years of losing money, Albert said.
All of this, on top of uncertainty in changes to health care, and a low Medicare reimbursement rate, forced the Retreat to make the cuts to its staff.
"Changes in how health care is delivered and reductions in government funding require that the Retreat continue to be flexible in how it organizes its services in order to deliver the best care possible to the people it serves," Albert said. "As the needs of patients and payers change, the Retreat like other hospitals needs to remain flexible and responsive to this changing environment of health care reform."
Callaci said he does not believe that the layoffs were announced to bolster the hospital's claim that it can not afford the pay raises that are being suggested by the union.
Callaci continues to say that staff members took pay cuts while the Retreat was suffering through tough economic times, and he says now that the administration has misspent the money it is not fair to make up the difference by eliminating patient care positions.
"Even in the Retreat's darkest financial hours these programs were never on the chopping block," Callaci said. "These are vital core services and these cuts fall primarily on the direct care staff."
Contract negotiations Tuesday broke down, Callaci said, after the administration announced the cuts.
Over the past few years, as the Retreat announced new programming, renovations and expansion, Callaci says it is the staff who put the plans into action and worked through the ongoing construction.
Announcing layoffs on the heels of two years in the black, and after highlighting innovative new programs, will be felt long after the contract talks are over, he said.
"You cannot say that you are going to eliminate these positions and then say this will not have an effect on patient care," Callaci said. "These cuts are moving the Retreat from a center of excellence to a place that is merely warehousing patients. These are the programs that have made the Retreat an exceptional place, and they can no longer say that the Retreat is an exceptional hospital."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.