Northern Berkshire Healthcare Cuts Staffing

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Northern Berkshire Healthcare has announced another round of layoffs less than a month after settling a contentious contract with its largest union, SEIU.

A total of 19.1 full-time equivalent positions are being eliminated and 13 currently vacant slots will not be filled as the health-care system grapples with an $8.1 million deficit. Union and nonunionized workers are being affected by the latest cuts, which North Adams Regional Hospital officials say should be fewer than 10 positions.

The exact number of workers affected in the local chapter of the Service Employee International Union 1199 isn't immediately known because they retain "bumping" rights. Union employees with seniority are able to bump more junior workers from positions, which may mean reduced hours for some and layoff for others.

Registered-nurse staffing reductions are being made through attrition and the posting of replacement positions at fewer hours when possible because of fewer patients in the hospital. Four executive and managerial positions are being eliminated but NBH has not yet released the titles of those affected.

The cuts, along with other nonsalary reductions, is expected to save $1.6 million.

"I'm grateful for the service of these individuals, and to all of the staff for their diligence and hard work. Any time hours are reduced or positions eliminated, it is not only a sacrifice for the individuals directly affected, but an additional burden on remaining staff who must cover those responsibilities," said NBH President Richard Palmisano in a statment. "I'm confident our staff can rise to the occasion, and in our collective commitment to secure the future of the organization for the community."

The health-care system ended 2008 in the black for the first time in years only to lose it in the financial meltdown; a round of staffing cuts was made in February 2009. Last year's $4.5 million shortfall ballooned to $8.1 million, half from lost investments because of the financial crisis. Declining patient count at both the hospital and Sweet Brook Care Centers hurt the nonprofit, as did the falling occupancy at its Sweetwood Retirement Community.

Like many small, community hospitals, North Adams Regional has been pinched by higher costs and lower Medicaid and Medicare payments. Those reimbursements are expected to drop further through health insurance reform as the federal government seeks greater efficiencies and savings. Hospital officials said the $155 billion in targeted savings will come from hospitals over the next 10 years and the bulk — $100 billion — would come through even lower Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.

The health-care system is seeking a partner and shedding both Sweet Brook and Sweetwood in Williamstown to help curb operational losses, which topped $4 million this year. A "smaller" operational loss is expected the coming fiscal year, said hospital officials in a press release.
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