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SVHC implementing furloughs

Health system has lost millions of dollars since coronavirus outbreak

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BENNINGTON — Southwestern Vermont Health Care is furloughing a portion of its workforce as it faces millions of dollars in lost revenue while preparing for an expected increase in coronavirus patients.

The health system, which employs more than 1,400 people, does not expect the measure to affect more than 100 employees, according to Kevin Dailey, SVHC's vice president for human resources. The furloughs, some of which already have begun, will be reassessed every two weeks.

"Our plan is to reactivate employees into needed positions once our patient volume starts to increase due to the COVID-19 surge," SVHC President and CEO Thomas Dee wrote in an email.

The organization has seen its normal business drop off by 75 percent or more in recent weeks and has lost millions of dollars in revenue, Dee said in a phone interview on Monday. SVHC suspended non-urgent procedures and appointments on March 19, by which time patients already had begun cancelling arrangements.

"We expect our revenue losses to grow worse in April and May as we continue to place a hold on non-urgent procedures, operations, and visits to our hospital as we gear up for an increase in COVID-19 patients," Dee wrote in an email.

State officials expect COVID-19 cases to peak in mid-to-late April or early May, Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, said last week at a press conference. There have been at least 543 positive test results and 23 deaths statewide, according to the Vermont Department of Health's coronavirus webpage.

As of mid-day Monday, 34 people had tested positive for the coronavirus at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, though there were no positive inpatients currently at the hospital, according to SVHC officials.

To prepare for an influx of COVID-19 cases, the hospital has activated all of its beds, set up dozens of additional negative pressure isolation rooms, created a respiratory evaluation center for patients exhibiting symptoms and outfitted staff with personal protective equipment, Dee said.

The hospital is licensed for 99 beds and has "secured additional beds and locations in the hospital should they be needed during the pandemic," according to Ray Smith, SVHC's director of marketing and communications.

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"We're hoping that we're over-preparing," Dee said.

Most of the furloughed SVHC employees will be non-direct care providers, such as support and administrative staff, according to Dee. The organization aims to bring all of the furloughed employees, who will continue to receive benefits and remain in good standing, back "in full capacity," he said.

"We want to get these people back as soon as possible — that's our goal," Dee said. The vast majority of furloughed employees, he said, will be receiving close to their normal compensation amounts because of federally enhanced unemployment benefits.

Dee described the furloughs as an unfortunate "last step" in a raft of initiatives intended to stem revenue losses. SVHC already is finalizing paperwork for a $15 million working capital line of credit from its bank, working with Medicare to obtain advance reimbursements for future patients, working with vendors "in a cooperative way" to extend payment terms, postponing discretionary expenses, cutting executive management team members' salaries by 15 percent and restructuring some contracts with physicians, he said.

SVHC also has established a COVID-19 relief fund to help the organization acquire critical supplies, expand patient care areas and support employees in distress.

"Key clinical areas, and most especially those providing direct care for the COVID-19 pandemic, have not and will not be touched" by the furloughs, Dee wrote in an email.

SVHC is continuing to hire for clinical staff positions, including providers, nurses and respiratory therapists, according to Dee and Dailey.

"Southwestern Vermont Health Care and our region is fortunate to have our dedicated physicians, nurses, and clinicians focused on the crisis," Dee wrote. "Working on the front lines of a pandemic is grueling work, but Southwestern Vermont Health Care is committed and dedicated to its mission by continuing to provide exceptional care and comfort to our community."

Contact Luke Nathan at lnathan@benningtonbanner.com.


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