close
close

Juneau’s hospital is hemorrhaging money. City leaders are considering cutting services to stop this.

JUNIAU – Bartlett Regional Hospital is in a tough spot. The country is facing a budget deficit of $7.5 million for the next fiscal year, and will have to cut spending to cover the shortfall. But the board says that is not sustainable.

Max Mertz, chairman of the hospital board’s finance committee, explained how the hospital got into such a hole — and what it will take to get out of it — during a joint meeting of the board and the Juneau Assembly on Wednesday evening.

“We have three years of cash left as of today before we actually close our doors. “We cannot keep payroll running without a significant adjustment to the way we work,” he said.

Mertz explained that the hospital’s budget crisis did not happen overnight. As of 2019, it is not making enough money to cover costs. And since mid-2020, the company has been steadily losing about $1 million per month.

Hospital leaders attribute that loss to higher labor costs, temporary pandemic funding drying up, staff and leadership turnover and low insurance reimbursements. Past attempts to correct course – such as hiring restrictions and reductions in overtime – simply haven’t been enough.

“We face very stark choices about how we want to move forward,” he said.

Now the board is considering eliminating or reducing “non-core” services that drain money – things like the Rainforest Recovery Center, Home Health and Hospice, crisis services and support for children with autism.

The board said cutting services will be the last resort — and they are trying to find ways to subsidize the programs with city dollars, by transferring them to other providers, or through other creative efforts to get out of the red.

But nothing is off the table at this point. Board Chairman Kenny Solomon-Gross said the board will host public meetings in the coming weeks and solicit input from the community.

“One of the best things about having a community hospital that we all own is that as a community we can choose what services we want for us,” he said.

At the meeting, a handful of residents and hospital staff were present to advocate for some of the services that may have been on the chopping block.

Juneau resident Mary Alice McKeen said Home Health and Hospice provides critical services that must continue. Bartlett began offering the services last summer and took over the role after Catholic Community Services ceased operations in 2022.

The home health program provides intermittent home care for people recovering from an illness or surgery, and hospice is for patients with a life expectancy of six months or less. McKeen says both are necessary.

“I can’t imagine that a city of 30,000 residents – as part of its health care system – would not provide hospice care, and it is inconceivable to me that we would go back to where the only option people had was to die in the hospital or die in a hospital. home without expertise or without help,” she said.

Mertz says these programs are expected to lose a combined $1.3 million next fiscal year.

Witnesses said services at the Rainforest Recovery Center should also continue.

Bartlett has run the substance abuse treatment center since 2000, but the company has been steadily losing money as subsidies and tax revenue run out. Next year, the hospital expects to lose nearly $800,000.

Jeni Brown said splitting up downtown would impact more than just people in Juneau.

“I’m here to advocate that these services are vital to everyone in the Southeast – everyone in Alaska. This is necessary – this is necessary to save people,” she said.

She said Juneau is a regional hub for these types of services for other Southeast Alaska communities that don’t have them. And for Juneau residents, that means they can get treatment faster and not have to travel to places like Anchorage or Seattle.

Brown said that as someone who once struggled with addiction and was previously incarcerated, services like this ensure that people struggling with addiction have a fighting chance — and that’s why she’s still alive today.

“This is something that should remain open. For some of us, this is survival. These are the resources we need to take the next step of returning to the community,” she said.

Residents also testified in support of other programs, such as adolescent and adult crisis services.

Assembly members shared little on their views on which services should be prioritized. Mayor Beth Weldon said she is interested in hearing from the community.

The public can provide testimony about the trial at upcoming meetings on June 4 and 10 on the hospital campus. Public comments can also be submitted electronically or by mail until June 19.

It is expected that the board will issue a final recommendation on how to proceed at the end of June. Mertz said it is important for the board to get input from the community before making any decisions, but noted that action needs to be taken quickly.

“We don’t have time to overhaul things, we just don’t have that time,” he said.

This article originally appeared on KTOO.org and is republished here with permission.