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North Country Hospital Looks Ahead After Layoffs

VPR/Charlotte Albright

In early July, North Country Hospital, in Newport, announced that it would end two programs and lay off at least nineteen workers.

The cuts come after two years of red ink, and a projected three percent shortfall.  Now the question is how the hospital plans to move forward.

North Country CEO Claudio Fort says the layoffs were, quote, “painful,” but necessary. He cites a number of health care trends that are decreasing patient population. Many patients now have high deductible insurance plans that Fort says discourage them from getting tests and procedures their doctors prescribe.

But there is also, he says, some good news creating empty hospital beds. Preventive care, Fort believes, is starting to keep people healthier. 

“That’s keeping people out of the hospital and avoiding acute care, so we are seeing emergency room visits go down and we are seeing patient census go down a little bit,” Fort said.

Employees who were laid off—most of them administrators—are being tight-lipped. But one staffer who is talking about the re-structuring is Scott Wheeler. He was a part-time writer for the marketing department and has also served in the state legislature on a health care committee. Wheeler says he was not devastated by his pink slip because, as publisher of the Northland Journal, he keeps busy. Wheeler says the hospital did need to trim its staff, to become more efficient.

“I personally feel that probably more layoffs are coming and they are probably needed. As for my own position, I think that the timing was kind of strange in that you’d think you would wantthe community to know exactly what was going on,” Wheeler said.

And the community is still waiting to learn more about what will happen to the patients who used the hospital’s occupational medicine clinic, and its psychiatrist, after both programs are terminated.

CEO Fort says the hospital’s psychiatric clinic will stay open through September to allow patients to find new doctors at Northeast Kingdom Human Services or at BAART, an addiction recovery center. Northeast Kingdom Human Services Executive Director Eric Grimes says he does not know yet how many new psychiatric patients his program will have to accommodate. He expects to send a psychiatrist from Human Services to the hospital one day per week.

He welcomes collaboration with the hospital but notes that the under-staffed, under-funded community health program already has a six-to-eight week wait period for non-emergency psychiatric appointments.

Meanwhile, NCH CEO Fort says sweeping changes in health care delivery at the federal and state level are making it difficult to predict patient population and revenues.

“We don’t know where that volume will erode to and we don’t know where the bottom of the hill is,” Fort said.

But, he added, Newport may be seeing an upswing in jobs and population, and it needs a community hospital. He is certain this one will survive. He’s just not sure exactly what services it will provide in the future.


Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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