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Hospital network cuts some positions; Porter spared

Doctors’ vacation and retirement benefits are being cut while other workers are being furloughed, as the University of Vermont Health Network cuts costs in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. 
As of July 1, 900 doctors across the network’s six hospitals will stop accruing vacation time and will no longer receive an employer match for their retirement benefits. Those changes, planned to be in effect for three months, will save the network $7.9 million, through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. 
At UVM Medical Center, the largest hospital in the network, 519 people have had their hours reduced or are on full furloughs, said spokesperson Annie Mackin. About 150 of that total were placed on furlough last week; some have also been reassigned to different jobs within the hospital. Mackin said the network hoped to bring all the furloughed employees back to work by the end of the fiscal year. 
Porter Medical Center is part of the UVMHN. The Middlebury medical center, which encompasses a hospital, nursing home and physicians practices, has not laid off nor furloughed any of its workforce, spokesman Ron Hallman said. Porter has, however, reassigned nine employees to other areas and has reduced hours for 54 employees across various departments.   
“We continue to actively evaluate furlough and lay-off options as we navigate the impacts of COVID-19 on our operating needs and financial performance,” Porter told the Green Mountain Care Board.
The temporary reductions in staff and pay come as the UVM Health Network tries to right itself financially following COVID-19-related losses.
“To regain our financial footing, we need to take some financial measures,” said Dr. Claude Deschamps, president and CEO of the UVM Health Network Medical Group, the entity that employs the network’s doctors. “I wanted to keep the base pay, and the benefits, and I wanted to keep everyone employed and I didn’t have the financial resources to do all that.”
Revenues at hospitals across Vermont plummeted during the pandemic, after facilities stopped providing elective surgeries and non-essential care in March. UVM Medical Center lost $71 million combined in the first three months of the pandemic, Mackin said. 
The network has a projected loss of $192 million this year, according to Mackin. Its hospitals have received $101 million in federal stimulus money.
One doctor within the system said he knew other hospitals across the country were facing larger cuts, but he was nonetheless disappointed about the cuts after physicians stepped up to help during COVID-19. He agreed to speak with VTDigger anonymously because he was concerned about losing his job. 
“It’s still not a great feeling to have cuts, and things are being chipped away,” he said. “There’s no clear idea if there could be more cuts down the road.”
Even if doctors wanted to leave the network, it would be next to impossible. With few hospitals hiring, “there’s no other place we can go,” he said.
According to Deschamps, the network has already taken a variety of cost-cutting measures, including cutting the salaries of hospital leaders — 5% for directors, 10% for vice presidents and above. Hospital officials have instituted a hiring freeze, decided not to move forward with some building projects, and worked to trim other expenses.
Initially, the hospital had proposed reducing doctors’ salaries by 5%, but ultimately decided to cut benefits instead.
Deschamps acknowledged the difficulty of cutting the benefits of those on the front lines of the pandemic. “This was a hard decision, and the doctors are anxious like the rest of us. They have given a lot,” he said, of their work during the pandemic. “I don’t take my providers for granted.”
Hospital administrators said they don’t know whether the cuts will be enough to balance the budget.
The hospital is accepting patients — but continues to operate at about 80% capacity, according to Dr. Steve Leffler, president of the UVM Medical Center.
Some people remain hesitant to seek care, Leffler said. The hospital is also accepting fewer patients to make time for additional cleaning, as well as to reduce the number of people in the waiting room. “We see that as the new normal for a while, at least,” he said.
Even with the measures, Deschamps said he doesn’t know whether it will be enough. Recovery “could take a few months, it could take a few years,” he said. “But I cannot predict the future. We’re doing everything we can.”

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