Editorial: Porter’s first job is to serve the public, which is no easy task

Just like it is the job of unions to defend their members, it is the job of the administration to keep its core institution strong in the face of hardship. For Porter and many other smaller hospitals, these are trying times where many are facing financial risk.
While everyone can sympathize with the nurses’ union argument that health care benefits (particularly at a hospital) should not be cut, once you know the details of the rest of the story you can understand Porter’s explanation as well.
Here’s the full story in a nutshell: the Nurses’ union has grabbed headlines and media attention because of its very visible and public demonstrations and protests with 1,000 people signing petitions objecting to the change in benefits; the hospital administration responds by helping all affected employees as much as possible and explaining, simply, that their fiduciary responsibilities rest in keeping the hospital solvent so it can continue to serve Addison County residents. Yes, the financial well being of the hospital’s part-time workers is important, but more important is being sure the 35,000 residents of Addison County have a hospital in Middlebury that is financially viable.
Most of us would agree with the administration.
It’s one thing if the hospital were making millions each year and they were cutting benefits to enrich their corporate leadership and wine and dine board members. But nothing could be further from the truth, and it’s worth reading today’s story that starts on the front page to understand the hospital’s plight in today’s changing health care landscape. Here are a few facts stand out in this modest tiff with the union:
• The benefit change Porter is seeking will consider part-time workers who earn benefits log at least 30 hours per week, up from the current 20 hours per week. About 64 workers at Porter would be affected. Of those, Porter has been in touch with most and worked through various scenarios (including moving some to a 30-hour week) as best as they could. The change would not be effective until Jan. 1, giving employees time to work out the best solution possible.
• Porter is right to maintain that most area businesses set 30 hours as the minimum for part-time employees to qualify for health insurance benefits. The move would bring them to the norm.
• At Porter’s budget hearing in front of the Green Mountain Care Board this August, the financial condition of Porter Medical Center was termed “fragile,” as Porter officials presented a budget showing a $1.7 million loss for fiscal year 2015, and a budgeted loss of $210,000 for the current fiscal year.
• Moreover, the cumulative operating loss for PMC from fiscal year 2012 to 2016 is $11 million. Only the infusion of federal funding has allowed PMC to sustain its shortfalls and maintain current staffing and benefit levels. One of those key federal programs benefiting Porter is the 340B federal drug program, but its fate is uncertain. It is one of the many programs under the knife by Republicans in Congress and the pharmaceutical industry. If the program were to be eliminated, Porter officials say, the financial health of the hospital and nursing home could be put in jeopardy in a few short years.
And that’s not hollering wolf for no good reason. These are tough financial realities for small hospitals during a time in which the landscape has been changing rapidly. What the administration must do is secure a financially stable future for the hospital, while also providing the broadest medical services that are realistic. And that goal is achievable. With sound and astute management, Porter will continue to serve the Middlebury-region for years to come just as it has so well for the past several decades.
But that can’t happen without changes being made along the way. As with all businesses, the administration has to take crucial steps when necessary. This is one of those times, and in the context of the union’s complaint vs. the hospital’s long-term financial viability, it’s not difficult to see which argument best serves the public good of the larger community.
— Angelo S. Lynn

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