As coronavirus strains hospital finances, Jackson Health asks workers to take leave

With Miami-Dade’s taxpayer-owned Jackson Health System being squeezed financially by the coronavirus pandemic — elective surgeries have been canceled by executive order of the governor, there’s been a freefall in patient admissions and a projected drop in county sales tax revenue that provides hundreds of millions of dollars a year in funding — CEO Carlos Migoya is asking employees in support departments and non-clinical roles to voluntarily use paid personal leave over the next few weeks.

Migoya made the request this week via an internal memo addressed to the more than 11,000 employees at Jackson Health.

“This outbreak is putting unbelievable strain on our financial foundation,” Migoya said in the memo. “The cancellation of elective medical care is dramatically reducing our revenue, and the community’s economic freeze will slash the revenues we receive from local sales taxes.”

Employees who voluntarily take paid leave now can help Jackson’s bottom line. Employees doing work that isn’t needed right now, because of the focus on coronavirus, won’t have to be replaced, which saves on overtime. And employees who take vacation now won’t be cashing it out at the end of the year, an option for most Jackson Health workers.

Rene Sanchez, a surgical technician and president of a labor union that represents 5,000 workers at Jackson Health, said on Thursday that the coronavirus pandemic has caused administrators to ration protective gear, such as respirator masks, and caused workers to worry about their ability to pay bills in the event of a prolonged crisis.

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“Employees know this may go on a long time,” he said during a press call with other South Florida labor leaders. “So they want to preserve the vacation days they have because they potentially can get sick and they potentially can be in a situation where they need those days to make payroll for themselves and their families.”

Sanchez said employee morale at Jackson is strong, and that workers are worried but committed to serving the community.

“Just like in any crisis like this, we’re scared and we have the courage to come to work,” he said.

Even with fewer patients in the hospital, Jackson Health must staff enough clinical workers to provide essential care and to stand prepared for an expected surge in cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

On Wednesday, Migoya said the number of patients at Jackson Health was the lowest it has been “in many, many years”.

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“If you walk through Jackson today,” Migoya said, “it’s very empty.”

Like other Florida hospitals, Jackson Health was forced to cancel elective surgeries starting on March 20 after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order prohibiting all hospitals, outpatient surgery centers, dentists offices and other healthcare facilities from providing “any medically unnecessary, non-urgent or non-emergency procedure.”

In addition to the governor’s order, Migoya said, many patients are postponing procedures because they don’t want to be in a hospital during an infectious disease pandemic.

“The consequences of that are a significant number of empty hospitals,” said Justin Senior, president of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, an industry group for public hospitals.

Senior said his group’s member hospitals, which include Jackson Health and other public hospitals, all are struggling with financial shortfalls due to canceled surgeries and fewer patients.

The health department’s Thursday report said there are 377 people with COVID-19 hospitalized statewide. There are about 250 hospitals in Florida and all were required to cancel non-essential surgeries.

“If no other patients are really arriving,” Senior said, “what you’ve got is a fairly normal day at the maternity ward, 10 COVID-19 patients and an empty hospital.”

In addition to empty beds, Senior said, hospitals are also seeing a larger number of patients with suspected cases of COVID-19.

Senior said the majority of those patients turn out to be negative. But those patients must be tested to confirm their status, and with test results taking days or longer to return, hospital workers are having to use protective gear and other resources more often because they’re required to treat those patients as though they were positive for COVID-19.

Jackson Health is one of the largest hospital systems in Florida and operates on a nearly $2 billion annual budget that funds three main hospitals in Miami, North Miami Beach and Palmetto Bay, as well as community clinics, urgent care centers, nursing homes and healthcare for inmates at Miami-Dade jails.

But Jackson Health is unlike other hospitals in Miami-Dade because it receives about $500 million a year in taxpayer funding through property taxes, sales taxes and general revenue from the county. With bars, restaurants and other non-essential businesses shuttered due to the pandemic, Jackson Health’s tax support is likely to dwindle, too, although it’s still uncertain how much.

In the memo to employees, Migoya did not say how many employees Jackson Health needs to take voluntary paid leave, or whether the hospital system would resort to layoffs if not enough workers take leave.

Matt Pinzur, a vice president for Jackson Health, said in an email that no one knows yet how much Jackson needs to save.

“We are taking this one day at a time,” Pinzur said. “We are not going to speculate on a situation that’s this unpredictable.”

Sanchez, the Jackson Health union president, urged residents of Miami-Dade to reach out to their elected officials and tell them to support local hospitals.

“Hospitals shouldn’t have to worry about whether they can make payroll,” Sanchez said. “Right now, they should only have to worry about taking care of patients and taking care of workers.”

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