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BRATTLEBORO — The Brattleboro Retreat, one of Windham County’s largest employers, announced Friday afternoon it will eliminate several programs that will result in the loss of 85 jobs at the private psychiatric hospital.

The job cuts, about 15 percent of its work force, won’t take effect for 60 days, and they come on top of more than 100 jobs lost by attrition since the spring as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Employment currently stands at 550 people.

Louis Josephson, president and chief executive officer, said the Retreat’s serious financial problems pre-dated the pandemic, which has only made the hospital’s finances worse, despite an infusion of $13 million in federal CARES funds. Admissions at the psychiatric hospital have dropped 30 percent since the pandemic hit.

He said the program and job cuts will result in an annual savings of about $5 million, or as much as $8 million.

“We are restructuring the Retreat to make it a lean organization. That is what this all came down to — to make ourselves sustainable,” said Josephson.

A financial crisis erupted in early January, when Josephson warned state officials and legislators that without an immediate infusion of $2 million in cash, the Retreat would either close or severely cut back the number of in-patient beds.

According to Josephson, the Retreat received $13 million in CARES funding, which is part of the state’s $1.6 billion pandemic federal emergency funding.

But he said even with that funding, it is clear that dramatic changes have to be adopted and he said the Retreat has been working closely with the state to come up with a “sustainable” future.

Sarah Squirrell, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Mental Health, said the Retreat administration has been working with state officials for several months to come up with a plan for the Retreat’s long term sustainability.

The Retreat and the state concurred that the best thing for the Retreat to do is to concentrate on its core mission of providing in-patient care for the mentally ill.

Squirrell said the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been severe on the entire health care system in Vermont, including mental health services, and that statewide, the number of patients has declined.

She said the state wants the Retreat to continue to be an integral part of the state’s mental health care system.

In addition to private patients, the Retreat has a 14-bed unit for state hospital patients.

The Retreat will eliminate several of its out-patient addiction treatment programs, including the so-called “hub” program, where people can come to the Retreat to get methadone or buprenorphine. People are expected to transfer to the “spoke” program, where people can go to doctor’s offices for their medicine and take it home with them.

Additionally, the Retreat is closing its 35-child day care center, Mulberry Bush. Also cut was the private Meadows School and its Bridge Program, which it runs for its young and adolescent patients, which includes 17 students who are not direct patients at the Retreat. The school’s numbers are much lower because of the overall decline in child patients, he said.

Those programs always lost money, said Josephson, who has been head of the Retreat for five years. His professional background is in social work.

Robert F. Smith, one of two union presidents at the Retreat, said he met with union members who were told earlier in the day their jobs were being eliminated. “It’s a rough day,” he said. The union is the United Nurses and Allied Professionals, with Unit 1 made up of nurses and therapists, and the second unit comprising mental health workers and other staff.

Smith, a mental health worker, said the job losses and program eliminations were not a surprise, since it is clear the Retreat’s finances are still in perilous position “and were exacerbated by the COVID virus.”

He said that by mid-afternoon, about two dozen layoffs had been announced. “It’s a major layoff of the staff,” he said, noting there are 351 union members. “Nobody’s really surprised,” he said. “The Retreat’s finances have been a mess for a year and a half.”

He blamed a big portion of the Retreat’s financial problems on the chronic and constant turnover in staff, which has forced the hospital to hire “traveling” nurses and staff — at a much higher expense. He said the union has a “massive” number of grievances pending against the hospital administration. “It’s a really toxic atmosphere,” he said.

Josephson said that because of the size of the layoffs, both state and federal governments have to be notified, and he said the state will offer help to those employees who have lost their jobs. The jobs are effectively eliminated on Dec. 27.

He said the 60 days will allow the Retreat and the state to make plans for those patients and clients to make a transition to other care providers, and he said he pledged to the state that in particular those addicts in the hub addiction program would not be left without care. There is another hub site in Brattleboro for addicts needing methadone.

He said at one point the Retreat employed about 800 people, but that number was split evenly between full-time and part-time people.

He said since the coronavirus pandemic struck, in-patient admissions have dropped significantly, while he noted that was “counter-intuitive,” given the stress and anxiety the pandemic is causing.

He said in particular the number of children admitted to the Retreat, which runs the only in-patient program for children and adolescents in the state, has dropped about 50 percent during the pandemic, which might be a result of children being at home and not monitored by teachers or therapists.

“It’s been a rough day at the Retreat,” he said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.


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