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Hospital fires 34

Eben Harrell

Aspen Valley Hospital management laid off 34 hospital employees across 27 departments yesterday, the institution’s most extreme measure yet in dealing with a financial crisis.

The firings, which came en masse yesterday morning, took out nearly 11 percent of the hospital’s work force, affecting nurses, administrators, and food service and cleaning personnel.

The firings were also accompanied by the announcement of a massive reduction in hours among retained employees and the decision not to fill 13 open positions next year.

All in all, officials hope these actions will save the hospital an estimated $2.8 million a year.

In what one employee called “Judgment Day,” the fired workers arrived at work yesterday morning and were met by their bosses, who asked them to clean out their belongings and then escorted them off hospital property.

One hospital worker called the process “obscene,” saying he was “degraded” and “treated like a criminal.”

The hospital is grappling with a deficit that swelled to $5.3 million in 2003. It was announced Monday night that due to faulty billing practices, administrators were forced to write off $11.7 million in uncollected bills, further deepening the crisis.

After the dismissals of former CEO Randy Middlebrook and chief financial officer Verna Bartlett earlier this year, hospital officials undertook an efficiency study to determine where cuts could be made.

Interim CEO Bob Karp said the process was “painful” and that officials worked hard to ensure the firings won’t affect patient care.

“We are saddened by the impact on all employees, but we have a fiduciary responsibility that required this action,” Karp said in a prepared statement. “I want to assure the community that … the decisions made will not compromise patient care and safety.”

Because most AVH physicians are contracted to the hospital, doctors were not among those laid off, but Karp said renegotiated physician contracts, which will significantly cut doctors’ income, are “bound and ready to go.”

AVH spokeswoman Ginny Dyche said all efforts were made to make the process as humane as possible. Fired employees were offered a severance package, and Dyche said they were given ample time to collect their belongings and say goodbye to colleagues.

But one employee said officials immediately asked him to leave and initially refused to let him collect his personal belongings before escorting him off the property. The employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said officials asked him to make an appointment to return at night to pick up his belongings.

“I worked hard for the hospital, and I didn’t do anything wrong. I understand this had to happen, but why did I need to be treated like a criminal?” the employee said.

It is not known if a standard severance package was offered, but one employee said she was given two weeks pay and will continue to receive benefits for a year and half.

A retained employee said remaining staff are understanding of the cuts, but a lot of anger remained about the poor management of Middlebrook and Bartlett. The employee said many hold the two directly responsible for the financial crisis that resulted in the firings.

“People have a lot of questions about previous management and frustration that we are in a situation where we are forced to reduce our force,” Dyche confirmed.

Karp said Middlebrook and Bartlett’s management was only part of the problem. He pointed out that the hospital staff has increased greatly in the last seven years, resulting in inefficiencies. Until yesterday, the hospital had a staff-to-patient ratio of 9.65 to 1, about 3.35 above the state average, according to hospital reports.

Karp said that even after 34 cuts, AVH’s staff is still greater now than it was in 1997.

Officials hope yesterday’s exodus will mark the end of the layoffs.

“I believe that the majority of job cuts has occurred,” Karp said.

Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com


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