Domino effect

State funding cuts taking toll on hospital employees, services, local economy

The massive cuts in state funding for Connecticut hospitals that took effect July 1 is starting to take its toll in Greater Danbury and New Milford, just as it is across the state.

The Western Connecticut Health Network -- the umbrella organization for Danbury and New Milford hospitals and associated medical organizations -- will be absorbing a $30 million hit over the next two years as its portion of the $550 million reduction in hospital funding statewide.

That's a lot of money, even for a major corporation like WCHN, and the dominoes are starting to fall in terms of cutbacks in staffing, compensation and services.

Hospital officials announced last week 65 current employees are scheduled to lose their jobs, and 51 vacant positions will not be filled, quashing the hopes of those professionals out there who sought to work for the network.

But the elimination of 116 jobs doesn't even begin to tell the impact on WCHN employees.

In an effort to save jobs, hospital officials decided to make significant changes in pay practices for non-union employees they say will bring the network's compensation packages in line with the market.

By eliminating or cutting back on some of those practices as of Sept. 1 -- involving daily overtime, double time on holidays, shift bonuses, weekend differentials and call pay -- officials say they will be able to prevent another 55 layoffs.

That is mostly good news, but the bottom line is that more than half of the network's 4,280 employees will, in effect, be taking a pay cut.

Sadly, 25 of the 65 employees who have been told they will be laid off are nurses, who provide vital, direct care for patients.

However, it is possible that most, if not all, of the nurses could avoid being laid off if their bargaining units agree to concessions similar to those being implemented for non-union staff.

So the unions that represent the nurses at Danbury and New Milford hospitals are faced with a dilemma: Accept the concessions and avoid 25 layoffs, or refuse to give up hard-earned compensation practices and see 25 nurses lose their jobs.

All told, WCHN officials say, the network hopes to save between 12 and 13 million dollars through layoffs, freezing vacant positions and changing compensation practices.

That's a major hit to WCHN employees, laid-off employees and would-be employees and represents yet another falling domino -- the ripple effect on the local economy.

With fewer hospital employees and fewer dollars going into the pockets of many remaining employees, a lot of local shops, restaurants and services -- especially in Danbury and New Milford -- will likely see a reduction in revenue.

We worry, too, about the impact on medical services. Hospital officials vow to increase employee productivity and promise patient care will not be affected. We hope they are right.

But at some point, with a gradually diminishing workforce, there has to some sort of loss of service.

We do not envy hospital officials as they seek to cope with these major cutbacks in funding, and we feel for the employees who lose their jobs or part of their compensation.

Dr. John Murphy, the network's president and CEO, said this week the state funding cuts are "too much, too fast and too destabilizing."

We agree, and we urge Connecticut government and hospital officials to develop a better dialogue and better understanding of each other's challenges so this does not happen again.

In the meantime, we take our hats off to the folks who mind the store at Danbury and New Milford hospitals and affiliates and wish them well as they ride out the storm.