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Facing “Crunch Time,” Hill Health Lays Off 25
by Gwyneth K. Shaw & Caitlin Emma | Feb 10, 2012 1:47 pm
Posted to: Science/ Medical, The Hill
For the second time in less than a year, the Cornell Scott Hill Health Center cut workers loose Friday as part of a continual restructuring—prompting one laid-off worker to ask how much longer the organization can survive.
In what CEO Jamesina S. Henderson (pictured) called a “painful” move, Hill Health laid off 25 employees, some with many years of service. Two of the workers were clinicians in the organization’s dental clinic; the others filled a variety of administrative jobs.
The job cuts come after 30 employees were let go in May 2011. After Friday’s layoffs, Hill Health now employs 450 people at 16 community health centers around the greater New Haven area, according to Rob Rioux, the company’s director of community relations and corporate development.
The organization shed 14 percent of its staff over the past year. Rioux said non-clinical staff are also being told to take a week-long furlough in order to minimize the number of jobs lost in Friday’s downsizing.
The layoffs will save Hill Health $1.5 million over the course of a year, Rioux said. The organization’s payroll totals $34 million.
The news came as a surprise to Anthony Williams, who lost his job as a case manager at Hill Health after 10 years.
“I’m just a little lightheaded right now,” Williams said. “I wasn’t ready for this.”
Company officials said the latest move comes at “crunch time,” and a “pivot point” for the 44-year-old health center. The cuts aim both to cut costs, and to restructure the workforce according to an evolving health care model. CEO Henderson said the health center had to shed administrative jobs so it could ensure its long-term survival.
Henderson said community health centers like Hill Health emerged from the larger War on Poverty, a broad effort to solve problems that, in some cases, continue today. But a “legacy” for these centers, she said, is the expectation that they would provide jobs in those communities, even beyond the needs of the center. She said Hill Health can no longer do that.
“Now, in crunch time ... every person has to contribute great value to the sustainability of the organization, and also ensuring the legacy in a forward fashion,” Henderson said.
Vashni Davis, 63, questioned if that legacy will last. He saw his 17-year career as an HIV counselor end abruptly in a meeting with his supervisor Friday morning. He said he worries that Friday’s layoffs are another step on the road to closing Hill Health.
“I’d be very surprised if this place stays open under the current administration,” Davis said as he headed into the Dixwell health clinic to collect his belongings. “The patients, they know what’s going on, so there are less patients coming to the Hill.”
Davis said his boss told him the downsizing was a “reorganization” and focused on saving money. His position, he said, has always been funded through a federal grant, which left his supervisor puzzled since the grant is still valid.
Henderson and Rioux said there’s a misperception that grant money funds salaries directly.
“People were have traditionally thought that they worked for the grant, and in reality, they work for the corporation,” Rioux said.
Davis said he is “very sad” about the layoffs and concerned about the future.
“This administration is not Mr. Scott,” Davis said, referencing the iconic founder of the health centers that bear his name. “This would never have happened under him. He cared about the people in the community, and he cared about his staff.”
The transition hasn’t been easy, something Henderson acknowledges.
“There’s resistance to some of the things just because they’re not well understood,” she said. “There have been changes since I’ve been here, but they have been essential changes.”
The shift has coincided with a restructuring, sometimes radical, of state and federal laws and budgets for health care. Hill Health must adapt, Henderson said, even if that means being a leaner organization with a slightly different focus than in the past.
Henderson said the organization needs to evolve to meet its own goals, as well as those promoted by the state and federal governments. The health center is moving towards creating a culture of “medical homes,” where patients get all their care from a place like Hill Health, instead of turning to emergency rooms or skipping treatment entirely.
Henderson emphasized that the company’s commitment hasn’t changed, and neither should the care patients receive.
The company’s leaders met frequently over the past few months to discuss the layoffs. Henderson said she was keenly aware that each of the 25 employees represents a family that will suffer because of a lost job.
Some of the layoffs were a direct result of budgetary changes at the state and federal level. For example, Rioux said, the state recently reduced the number of dental cleanings it would pay for each year for low-income people from two to one. Since the vast majority of Hill Health’s dental patients can’t pay out of pocket for that second cleaning, a dentist lost his job, Rioux said.
There are more changes on the horizon, as the federal health-care reform law takes effect, and the state continues to tweak its system. But Henderson said the company doesn’t anticipate more downsizing.
Hill Health, she said, has the opportunity to be a model as policymakers push the kind of holistic approach patients already enjoy, she said. The centers integrate medical, mental health, dental and substance abuse services in one place, which if applied on a broad basis is supposed to cut costs while boosting overall health.
“Here we sit in an integrated care system that everybody else wants,” she said.
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