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IIMC employees tell of fear and suspicion during pay cut, furlough talks; commission vows better communication

Talk of impending pay cuts and unpaid furloughs took their toll at Inter Island Medical Center, staff members told the hospital district commission Wednesday. Closed doors and whispered conversations fed employee fears about whose job was on the line. Doctors called to meetings forgot about their patients. A medical assistant said she overheard a doctor saying that her position was not needed.   - Richard Walker
Talk of impending pay cuts and unpaid furloughs took their toll at Inter Island Medical Center, staff members told the hospital district commission Wednesday. Closed doors and whispered conversations fed employee fears about whose job was on the line. Doctors called to meetings forgot about their patients. A medical assistant said she overheard a doctor saying that her position was not needed.
— image credit: Richard Walker

Talk of impending pay cuts and unpaid furloughs took their toll at Inter Island Medical Center, staff members told the hospital district commission Wednesday.

Closed doors and whispered conversations fed employee fears about whose job was on the line. Doctors called to meetings forgot about their patients. A medical assistant said she overheard a doctor saying that her position was not needed. On more than one occasion, doctors allegedly gave Physician Assistant Pat Davis the wrong direction to meetings she was supposed to attend and told her she couldn't use certain equipment; employees called the behavior "harassment."

Doctors and staff at Inter Island Medical Center are taking pay cuts of about 10 percent and three unpaid furlough days between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31 to help keep the medical center's budget balanced. The reductions and furlough days are expected to save $100,000, according to a medical center report. The reductions were required by declining revenue caused by a decline in patient visits and insurance reimbursements.

Hospital District Commissioner Keri Talbott said she received 12 e-mails and three phone calls from employees, telling of the tension at the medical center that began in early September after a committee led by commissioners J. Michael Edwards and Michael Roger began studying ways to cut the budget deficit.

Several employees read letters or spoke Wednesday, outlining their concerns. They described an unsettling work environment in which patient care was affected. Tina Barnes, the medical center's insurance specialist, said Davis found a blood clot in her leg that a doctor had missed. "I was (med)flighted off. I thought I was going to lose my leg," she said. Receptionist Juan Unpingco said doctors, but not the rank and file, were consulted regarding furloughs. "We feel like we're in the dark all the time," another employee said. "The suspicion has divided us."

But all who spoke — whether doctor, nurse or front office staff — agreed that they wanted the medical center to be a place of efficient care again, not, as one employee called it, a "place of worry."

"This place has a great heart," said Dr. Loren Johnson, medical director.

The result of the meeting: A commitment to communicate better. A core group — consisting of Edwards, Rogers, Johnson, Administrator Beth Williams Gieger, and Clinical Services Director Cynthia Marsh — will proactively seek input from employees. If an employee has a concern, he or she can talk to a core group member, who will take it to the group to be addressed.

Roger, an attorney who is also a member of the county Citizens Salary Commission, said he will not tolerate harassment or rumor-mongering. "I'm tired of hearing all this stuff," he said, calling it "crap." In the event of future harassment, "heads will roll," he said.

The cuts and furloughs affect all hands. The hospital employs an administrator, medical coder, administrative/telemedicine assistant, three receptionists, six doctors, one physician assistant, a medical transcriptionist/records clerk, six RNs, lab technician, two medical assistants, referral coordinator, business office manager, financial coordinator, insurance specialist.

Edwards said that without the cuts and furloughs, "the doors would not be open right now."

From Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, the medical center handled 14,191 patient visits, down from 15,142 during the same period in 2009, according to a medical center report. The medical center reported $1.78 million in charges and $1.06 million in payments between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 of this year. The medical center reported $1,668,883.53 in charges and $1,099,742.16 in payments between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2009.

The medical center is a Level 5 trauma center and provides 24/7 care, but it is classified as a medical clinic so its insurance reimbursements are less than a full-fledged hospital. In March 2009, the hospital district commission signed a 50-year contract with PeaceHealth to build and operate a critical access hospital on San Juan Island. That hospital, called Peace Island Medical Center, will be developed on San Juan Valley Road near Friday Harbor Airport and is expected to be open in August 2012. Once it opens, Inter Island Medical Center will close and PeaceHealth will be responsible for all financial operations of the hospital, although the public hospital district will contribute its $1.2 million in annual property tax revenue to subsidize care. The hospital district commission will continue to be directly responsible for San Juan EMS.

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