Editor’s note: As part of this ongoing series that looks at the effects of Paycheck Protection Plan, Vermont News & Media reached out to a dozen local businesses in the health care industry that received PPP dollars. Two of those businesses declined to be interviewed and the rest did not return multiple phone calls over a two-week span. Two essential regional health care businesses, among other officials, did respond, and the report that follows includes their comments.
BENNINGTON/WINDHAM COUNTY — Certain segments of the health care industry throughout Southern Vermont have stayed afloat with pre-pandemic staffing levels because of $35 million in federal payroll protection dollars.
To qualify for a PPP loan, a business must be deemed small, according to Daniel Monahan, the public information officer for the Vermont District Office of the Small Business Administration; generally, a business must have 500 employees or less, by the SBA’s definition.
When PPP funds were first offered, several Vermont hospitals were ineligible for the money based on the SBA’s general definition. However, other segments of the health care industry were eligible to receive loans through the federal program, which included certain types of physicians, specialists, dentists, assisted-living facilities and many more.
What is considered to fall within the health care industry, however, is less clear-cut.
Under the North American Industry Classification System, there is a classification for health care and social assistance, according to Monahan. Under this classification, there are not only certain aspects of the health care industry, including the aforementioned, but there are also businesses that fall in the social assistance category. These businesses provide services such as child daycare, temporary shelters, food services and programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters, among many others.
Under the broadest classification of the category that encompasses health care and social assistance, Windham County received $21,077,901 in PPP funding, about 6.1 percent of the overall total of $128,778,681.99 in PPP funds that was distributed throughout Windham County. Based on the data provided by Monahan, Vermont News & Media was able to determine that it appeared that $19,014,430 of those funds were distributed to businesses in health care.
Under the broadest spectrum of all the loans granted, there were 18 loans over $150,000, totaling $16,296,684 that supported 1,415 jobs. There were 126 loans under $150,000 that were issued for a total of $4,781,217 that supported 620 jobs in Windham County.
Looking at the classifications, it appears that there were 15 loans issued in the health care industry for over $150,000 that accounted for $15,513,298 and supported 1,318 jobs. The 89 loans that were issued in what appears to be health care only under $150,000 totaled $3,501,136 and supported 393 jobs in Windham County.
The Brattleboro Retreat
The Brattleboro Retreat was one of the businesses in Windham County, and one of the more significant recipients in terms of the amount of money awarded and the total number of jobs maintained by a single entity in the county.
The Retreat, which is a hospital that serves people with psychiatric and substance use disorders, received $7,804,895 in PPP funds, which supported 469 jobs, according to federalpay.org.
The funds allowed the hospital to meet its payroll-related expenses and retain its existing staff, said Jeff Kelliher, manager of communications and media relations.
For the Retreat, receiving the PPP funds when it did helped immensely, he said.
Facility was up against it
“The timing of the loan was beneficial because it occurred during a period of uncertainty about the duration of the pandemic (which is still the case) along with challenges in the overall state of the job market, which in health care is already extremely tight — especially in rural areas like Vermont,” Kelliher said.
Had the Retreat not received the PPP funds when it did, Kelliher said the hospital would have had to make very difficult decisions about its ability to continue offering certain clinical services, which, in turn, could have created a ripple effect across Vermont’s overall system of health care.
While Kelliher said it is difficult to speculate how the hospital might have been affected had they received less money, he said that the financial aid the Retreat has received has played a positive role in allowing it to continue serving Vermonters in need.
‘There wasn’t really another option’
In Bennington County, about $13.5 million in total funds was distributed under the broadest classification of the industry, which includes both health care and social assistance, according to Jonathan Cooper, community and economic development specialist for the Bennington County Regional Commission. That is about 6.5 percent of the overall total of $87,835,608 in PPP funds that Bennington County received through June of this year.
There were 90 businesses and organizations, he said, that applied for money within this classification, which supported 1,323 unique jobs. Cooper said that “unique jobs” were ones that he did not count twice, as some businesses received more than one PPP loan, but the funds supported the same jobs.
“I think that a lot of those specialty providers, while there may not be very many of them by headcount in the region, they were very, very likely to utilize them because there wasn’t really another option,” Cooper said. “For those non-essential employers, this was the only way to remain solvent for many of them and this is exactly what the program … was designed to provide support to.”
The biggest segment of the health care industry in Bennington County that received the most money, and supported the most jobs, were assisted living facilities and occupations dealing with senior care, Cooper said. Assisted living and senior care received $4.4 million and accounted for just over a third of the jobs, with 521, under the classification in Bennington County.
While assisted living and senior care accounted for a significant amount of the jobs and funding, the remaining amount of funding that went to other forms of health care in Bennington County, and the jobs that it supported, was astounding.
Lots of health care jobs buoyed
“It looks like about 690 jobs that are not related with senior care, but were also in health care,” Cooper said. “Those 690 non-senior and assisted-living facilities were right around $7.8 million dollars in PPP funding. So, that’s almost 60 percent of the total in terms of dollars, and that’s a little over a half in terms of jobs.”
The funds used by dentists in Bennington County was somewhat sizeable, as well, accounting for a little over $2 million and about 15 percent of the money issued under the classification.
“Surprisingly, dentists were some of the strongest users of this program because they did have that direct closure. That isn’t something that you can do remotely. That isn’t something that you can do in any other way, the way that we have dentist offices set up,” said Cooper. “It just sort of highlights, of that $13.5 million, just how important it was to that industry. Over $2 million dollars in Bennington County alone.”
UCS has 279 jobs supported by PPP
United Counseling Service of Bennington County was one of the businesses in the health care industry to receive PPP funds. The organization received $2,746,500, which supported 279 jobs, according to federalpay.org.
Heidi French, director of community relations and development for UCS of Bennington County, said the PPP loan that the agency received paid for UCS staff salaries over a three-and-half-month period during the height of the pandemic, which allowed them to retain all of their staff.
Receiving the PPP loan at that time prevented UCS from having to take measures that could have negatively affected the organization.
“It offered UCS cash flow and funding security during a period of uncertainty,” French said. “During the period of uncertainty, UCS would have reviewed the potential of staff layoffs to help mitigate any reduction in funding.”
Had they received less PPP funding, French said that UCS could have potentially reviewed staff layoffs at an earlier point.
Still, even after getting through the uncertainty that existed at the height of the pandemic, things are different at UCS today.
Mostly free: ‘constant awareness of client and staff safety’
“We are operating at a different level with a constant awareness of client and staff safety first and foremost,” said French. “This comes at a cost not only with increased costs for pandemic-related items but also at a cost to our staff wellness, which UCS takes extremely seriously. The PPP loan offered UCS a financial security, which allowed our programs to concentrate on the wellness of our community from the beginning of the pandemic to this day.”