COVID-19 is throwing a double-whammy at hospitals.

Not only must frontline medical professionals combat the dangerous disease, but administrators are faced with dwindling revenues as clinic patients choose to stay home and the state’s moratorium for elective procedures continues.

The situation is juxtaposed in Tulsa. Hillcrest is temporarily furloughing employees; Ascension St. John is offering a pledge to avoid layoffs and implement pay protection programs; and Saint Francis is forging ahead without system-wide furloughs.

Hillcrest HealthCare System announced Monday morning that it is placing about 600 employees on a temporary furlough that is expected to last up to 90 days because of the negative financial effect of the global coronavirus pandemic.

The 600-some furloughed employees, who make up 9% of the Hillcrest system’s workforce, might be called back sooner if the need arises, according to a news release. Additionally, Hillcrest is realigning services and making staff changes that include reassignments, reduced hours and pay cuts.

In response to Tulsa World questions, Kevin Gross, CEO of Hillcrest HealthCare System, said approximately 20% of the system’s 6,700 employees — about 1,340 people — will be affected by furloughs, reassignments, or reduced hours or pay.

Gross said the difficult decisions were made to ensure that Hillcrest can provide life-saving care with the caregivers and resources it has available.

“We know this is a difficult time for workers and families,” Gross said in a statement. “We are hopeful that these measures will be short-lived. We are grateful for the service of all staff members and we remain hopeful that over the next few months, we will return to normal hours for our employees.

“Our health care workers will continue to provide compassionate and quality care to those who need us.”

Gross told the Tulsa World that the furloughs affect employees in numerous roles, from administration to outpatient or surgery positions that are experiencing drops in workload or patient volumes.

He noted “significant declines” in routine and elective procedures as patients comply with stay-at-home directives and government mandates. Reduced hours or pay mostly affect clinic settings, he said.

“Our outpatient office visits have been reduced 20-30% over the past three weeks,” Gross wrote. “Our staff are conducting patient visits by video where possible, and our telehealth visits have been very well received. As volumes bounce back, furloughed employees will be called back to work.”

Hillcrest has hospitals in Tulsa, Claremore, Cushing, Henryetta and Owasso, as well as more than 55 regional clinics in eastern Oklahoma, according to its website.

State Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, blamed a Republican legislative supermajority and two Republican governors for failing to enact full Medicaid expansion, expressing fear that the inaction is crippling Oklahoma’s response to the pandemic.

Nichols, whose district includes Hillcrest Medical Center, said Medicaid expansion would have meant an additional $20 million in revenue for Hillcrest that “would have gone a long way” toward addressing its furloughs. He said nearly $1 billion in health care funding for Oklahoma would have given hundreds of thousands of people access to affordable care, as well as stability to hospitals and fewer communities lacking providers.

Ascension St. John offering pay protection programs

Ascension President and CEO Joseph Impicciche has pledged a “commitment to no layoffs and a variety of pay protection programs … as long as possible.”

In a Friday email to all 160,000 Ascension employees nationwide, Impicciche said the pay protection programs include furlough pay, pay continuation, paid time off advance, workers’ compensation and short-term disability.

“All Ascension associates, including our employed physicians and providers, will have this protection even if they are temporarily assigned to a different job within our ministry or unable to work because they have been diagnosed or are suspected of having COVID-19,” Impicciche wrote.

He said Ascension also is implementing day-care subsidies and reimbursement for associates who care for coronavirus patients and might need to stay in a hotel to ensure social distancing from family members.

“We have implemented solutions to alleviate some of that anxiety and uncertainty around your financial well-being, recognizing that as a community our strength and commitment to serve is about caring for our associates especially as they are caring for those affected by this pandemic,” Impicciche wrote.

Ascension St. John employs about 8,000 associates throughout northeastern Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas, according to a spokesperson.

Saint Francis Health System operating without furloughs

Systemwide furloughs aren’t occurring in the Saint Francis Health System, according to Lauren Landwerlin, executive director of corporate communications.

“We have algorithms in place throughout the health system that provide guidance on appropriate staffing needs based on volume fluctuations. This is not a new practice for us,” Landwerlin wrote in response to Tulsa World questions. “The models we use have allowed us to successfully navigate volume changes in the past and we expect them to serve us well with the current challenges we, and all health care systems, are facing.”

Landwerlin said some nonclinical departments, such as the system’s fitness facility, have been temporarily shuttered in response to city and state directives. Those employees have been given the opportunity to apply for open positions elsewhere in the system until their specific business unit is able to reopen.

In areas where volumes are down, she said, staff have the option of working in other areas with needs.

“We have long had the practice of planning for the hard times. Here we are,” Landwerlin wrote. “It is our hope that Saint Francis’ historical organizational discipline will serve us well as we face this unprecedented situation.”

St. Francis employs about 10,000 people.

The OSU Medical Center in Tulsa was unable to respond Monday to questions from the Tulsa World.

Video: April 7 coronavirus briefing from Tulsa officials with guidance on masks


Look for the helpers: See what these Tulsans are doing to ease the stress of the coronavirus pandemic

Corey Jones 918-581-8359

Twitter: @JonesingToWrite

Corey is a general assignment reporter who specializes in coverage of man-made earthquakes, criminal justice and dabbles in enterprise projects. He excels at annoying the city editor. Phone: 918-581-8359

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