When health care is a business: US hospitals cut staff amid pandemic

By Albert Traver, Alex Segura and Marc Arcas

Washington/Los Angeles/San Jose, Jun 15 (efe-epa).- As nurses, Julie Wei and Gary Salcedo would be seen as indispensable in any country facing a pandemic, with the conspicuous exception of the United States, where falling profits have led hospitals to lay off medical professionals even as fatalities from Covid-19 have topped 115,000.

Some of the laid-off doctors, nurses, lab technicians and other staff may be recalled when hospital balance sheets improve, but a significant number of those now-vacant positions are expected to disappear.

Unlike the vast majority of industrialized nations, the US does not have universal health care, and while people 65 and up can turn to Medicare and the poor can apply for Medicaid benefits, most Americans depend on private insurance to meet their medical expenses.

Only 21 percent of the country’s more than 6,000 hospitals are public institutions, according to figures from the American Hospital Association (AHA).

US hospitals typically take in more than $1 trillion a year and the sector has received $50 billion in aid over the last three months as part of the government’s response to the economic crisis accompanying the health emergency.

Obstetrics nurse Julie Wei was recently laid off from Regional Medical Center in San Jose, California.

“What are my plans? Most of us are looking for jobs, but because of the Covid situation there are many hospitals that aren’t hiring, so not everybody has a job,” Wei said in comments to Efe.

Regional Medical is owned by HCA Healthcare, a for-profit operator of health care facilities with 186 hospitals across 21 US states and the United Kingdom.

HCA decided to shut down the obstetrics department at Regional Medical, which serves a low-income area of San Jose with a large immigrant population, and transfer those functions to an affiliated institution about 15 mi. (24 km) away.

The move eliminated 80 jobs, including Wei’s.

HCA points to a declining birth rate in East San Jose, where Regional Medical is located, but Wei dismisses that explanation.

“They’re doing it because they feel it’s not making money. That’s the bottom line,” she told Efe, going on to question the hospital’s plan to direct women in labor to the emergency room.

“A pregnant woman comes in, they’re going to be treating them in the emergency room. But I can tell them from years of experience that bad things can happen very quickly. A woman can bleed, she can deliver a pre-term baby that needs resuscitation quickly,” Wei said.

The hospital industry says that layoffs are necessary because revenues have plunged due to the suspension of non-essential procedures because of the pandemic.

The AHA president and CEO, Rick Pollack, told the International Travel & Health Insurance Journal last month that US hospitals have been losing roughly $50 billion a month since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think it’s fair to say that hospitals are facing perhaps the greatest challenge that they have ever faced in their history,” he said.

The people affected by the layoffs, however, accuse management of exploiting the Covid-19 situation to impose permanent reductions in staffing levels.

“The hospital is clearly putting profits ahead of patients,” Maureen Zenman, a veteran maternity ward nurse at Regional Medical Center, told Efe.

Some hospital administrators have taken a different approach, asking employees in positions not involved in the coronavirus response to volunteer to be furloughed, or temporarily laid-off, until revenue recovers.

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