Occupy Winston-Salem protests Novant Health layoffs

YES! Weekly | June 14, 2012
About 16 people picketed at the corner of Hawthorne Road and Silas Creek Parkway last week across the street from Forsyth Medical Center last week to protest job cuts by the hospital’s nonprofit owner, Novant Health.

They waved signs with messages like “Corporate greed makes us sick” and “We love healthcare workers” at passing motorists, eliciting honks and thumbs-up.

“We’re here to protest the fact that Novant, despite having non-profit status, is running their nonprofit like a for-profit company,” said Tony Ndege with Occupy Winston-Salem. He cited speculative land investments and exorbitant executive salaries.  

“Their [executives] are receiving millions of dollars in salaries and perks,” he continued. “It’s pretty ridiculous that they’re not taking cuts in their pay. They’re making bad business decisions and investments, and they’re showing their employees to the door. And to me, that’s the height of disloyalty.” 

Novant announced last week that it plans to cut 289 jobs. Headquartered in Winston-Salem, the company operates 13 hospitals, including facilities in Kernersville and Thomasville. The company employs 1,124 doctors and 25,000 others in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia. 

“Last week’s job eliminations were painful and difficult decisions that happened as part of our need to make healthcare more affordable,” Marketing and Public Relations Director Cynthia Charles said in a prepared statement before the protest. “We are a not-for-profit healthcare organization that is not only responding to society’s demand for affordable healthcare, but that is also facing continued declines in reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid, along with growing needs for providing charity care. We remain committed to being a major employer and provider of high-quality, affordable healthcare to our local communities. We make decisions like this with a heavy heart, because the people who were affected have been part of the Novant family.” 

In a memo announcing the layoffs, CEO Carl Armato said the company is currently recruiting for 1,300 positions primarily in clinical and patient care, and hoped to place some of those who had been laid off when their skills and training met the new jobs’ requirements.

Armato gave four main reasons for the force reductions: a national mandate to lower spending on healthcare, reduced demand for elective surgeries and diagnostic imaging, reduced reimbursements from federal programs, and a significant increase in charity care.

Ndege said the healthcare company’s claim that it must tighten its budget to adjust to declining reimbursement levels from Medicare and Medicaid strikes him as false. 

“I think it’s outrageous they’re trying to blame this on Obamacare,” he said. “Baby boomers are getting older. It’s obvious that there’s not less business for them.” 

Catherine Leinbach, 60, held a sign reading, “Greed equals 289 layoffs.” She has visited Forsyth Medical Center on a number of occasions as a charity patient. 

Five or six years ago, she said she came to the emergency room at 3 a.m. and left seven and a half hours later without being seen because she had to come back home to care for her bedridden mother. Leinbach said she was not seen despite the fact that she was the only one there for the duration of her visit, adding that she heard employees conversing down a hallway. 

More recently, in August 2010, Leinbach said she had to wait 11 hours to be seen for a problem with her gall bladder. Ultimately, the doctor said he couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her, gave her some pain pills and sent her home.

“It was just horrible to wait and wait,” Leinbach said. “I was in a separate room. It gets aggravating when they pull people in front of you and you wonder: What the heck is wrong with them? 

“Less than six months later,” she continued, “I had my gall bladder taken out and I had 72 stones. They put me through an MRI. You would think they would have seen something.” 

Leinbach said she could not tell based on her experience whether she was treated differently from insured patients. 

“I think they’re overwhelmed and understaffed,” she said.  

Jeanne Mayer, a spokeswoman for Novant Health, said the hospital has revised its emergency-room processes over the past two years and that most of the changes were completed in the past six months.

“The emergency room at Forsyth Medical Center is one of the largest in the state and has transformed its processes during the past couple of years to become more efficient in seeing and treating patients quickly while sustaining a high quality of care,” Mayer said in an e-mail. “When you enter the ER, a nurse greets you and does a quick-look assessment. This lets staff identify those who need immediate care, such as patients with stroke or heart-attack symptoms. 

“Patients who are stable may initially be seen by a nurse practitioner, who can order diagnostic tests even before the patient is brought back to a treatment room,” she continued. “Traditionally, patients coming into the ER would wait in the lobby until a room was available and their care would begin once in the room.”

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