Dartmouth-Hitchcock CEO says layoffs won’t affect N.H. Hospital

  • A pagoda inside the courtyard of New Hampshire Hospital in Concord. Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 9/12/2016 10:31:09 PM

Dartmouth-Hitchcock CEO James Weinstein said Monday that the health care organization’s plan to lay off hundreds of workers will not extend to New Hampshire Hospital, where roughly two dozen psychiatric staff are employed by Dartmouth-Hitchcock under a new $36.5 million state contract.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock announced Friday a plan to lay off between 270 and 460 of its employees by the end of 2016, touching off anger and confusion among executive councilors and state officials who were not aware of the impending cuts when they approved the staffing contract just days earlier. A spokesman did not say then whether the cuts would affect New Hampshire Hospital, revealing only that the layoffs would target 3 to 5 percent of the workforce. On Monday, Weinstein sought to temper concerns.

“The workforce reductions being contemplated will not affect our performance under this contract,” he said in his statement Monday. “We have worked diligently to fully staff all service areas under the contract and there will be no layoffs in those areas.”

Dartmouth-Hitchcock was the only bidder to take over a contract from Dartmouth College to provide psychiatrists, administrators and advanced-practice nurses at the state-run hospital in Concord that treats people with severe mental illness.

The five-member Executive Council had delayed approval of the contract for weeks over concerns with staffing levels and a labor dispute that pushed nearly a dozen hospital psychiatrists and nurses out the door in July. But last Wednesday, the council voted unanimously to give Dartmouth-Hitchcock the three-year contract, which also covers medical staff at the state’s juvenile detention center in Manchester and the Glencliff Home.

News of the planned layoffs touched off a firestorm in the state gubernatorial contest, in which two executive councilors are competing.

Republican Ted Gatsas, Manchester’s mayor, quickly accused councilors Chris Sununu, a Republican, and Colin Van Ostern, a Democrat, of failing to adequately scrutinize the deal before signing off.

Gatsas called on the council to cancel the contract and leveled his harshest criticism at Sununu. “It’s disingenuous for him to say that he was unaware of concerns surrounding this contract before he caved into pressure from Gov. Hassan to approve it,” Gatsas said.

Sununu called for the state to cancel the contract with Dartmouth-Hitchcock on Sunday, citing the proposed layoffs. The state can terminate the contract at any time with 30 days notice under the agreement’s terms.

“This vital piece of information was clearly withheld from the Governor and Council during the negotiations and debate of their $36 million contract,” he said in a statement. Sununu also “reiterated his strong concerns about the state doing business with any organization that withholds such important information over a public contract.”

Van Ostern called the layoffs “troubling” in a statement, but did not go so far as to say the state should cancel its contract.

“DHMC has a legal obligation to fulfill the complete number of fully qualified and experienced staff before their new contract with the state takes effect in November, and they must be held to this full obligation regardless of yesterday’s surprise announcement,” Van Ostern said.

He added that the state should work to connect laid-off employees with unemployment resources and connect them to other employers across the state seeking workers. Gov. Maggie Hassan directed the state’s Rapid Response Team on Friday to assist the affected Dartmouth-Hitchcock workers.

Other gubernatorial candidates also weighed in, accusing the council of not doing its homework. Dartmouth-Hitchcock closed out its fiscal year June 30 with a $12 million deficit. Its credit rating was downgraded in August by both Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s Rating Services.

Democratic candidate Mark Connolly was “shocked and disappointed” by the layoffs and urged state officials to meet with the hospital’s board of directors to ensure the contract would not be affected, according to his spokeswoman, Allison Bernstein.

“Mark recognizes that there are strict requirements laid out in the contract and expects Dartmouth-Hitchcock to adhere to those commitments,” Bernstein said. “If they cannot do so, the state needs to know immediately.”

Other candidates said they wanted to know more about the contract bidding process.

“On the contract issue, I would call all parties to the governor’s office immediately and determine if there was any wrongdoing in the contract process,” Republican state Sen. Jeanie Forrester of Meredith said in a statement. “Regardless, Gov. Hassan, and councilors Sununu and Van Ostern didn’t do their homework.”

Republican state Rep. Frank Edelblut of Wilton saved most of his criticism for Hassan, but also took a shot at Sununu.

“Sununu should not be shocked or surprised because apparently he and the governor have been too busy playing politics instead of doing the job the people elected them to do,” Edelblut said in a statement provided to WMUR. “Our state government officials need to communicate with one another so they are on top of issues like this before they become a crisis.”

Democratic candidates Mark Connolly and Steve Marchand did not return requests for comment.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock is currently staffing psychiatrists at New Hampshire Hospital under a temporary agreement that expires in October. The three-year contract would then take effect.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s takeover at the hospital has been contentious. A group of psychiatrists and nurses accused Dartmouth-Hitchcock last spring of refusing to negotiate employment terms. They tried unsuccessfully to unionize and were pushed out in July.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock has refuted those claims. The organization pulled providers from its practice in Lebanon and closed nine of the 21 psychiatric beds there to fill the staffing holes at N.H. Hospital.

The state’s Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers said he wasn’t aware of the layoff plan before the contract came up for a vote. “I’m obviously disappointed and frustrated how they made the announcement of the layoffs,” he said Monday. “Today, they reaffirmed layoffs won’t affect services to the state of New Hampshire.”

(Staff writer Ella Nilsen contributed to this report.)

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