Kern Medical Center is preparing to lay off an undisclosed number of employees as it struggles to stanch a monthly $3 million wound in its budget.
Kern County Supervisors were told Tuesday at their weekly meeting that KMC lost $3.4 million in February and is on its way to a staggering $30 million loss for the current fiscal year that ends in June.
Supervisor Mike Maggard fumed at union contracts and civil service rules that tie his hands — and those of KMC CEO Russell Judd — when it comes to having “flexibility” in how to staff the hospital.
"How can we change those civil service rules so we can operate this hospital in a way that doesn't bankrupt the county?" Maggard asked County Administrative Officer John Nilon.
The voters created the civil service rules in 1956 and the voters are the only one who can change them, Nilon told him.
"Or we could close KMC," Maggard said.
"Or you could create a hospital authority," Judd said. KMC “is a needed entity that cannot exist in its current environment. Nobody can continue this kind of financial (crisis)."
Supervisor Chair Leticia Perez said after the meeting that all county departments have been asked to make sharp spending cuts for the new fiscal year that starts July 1.
“It is a real likelihood that (layoffs) are coming,” she said. “It is safe to assume that some or many of those will be at KMC.”
Regina Kane, a mental health nurse at KMC and president of the Kern County chapter of Service Employees International Union, Local 521, said the county needs to remember workers at KMC are assets, not liabilities.
“KMC is a vital safety net for thousands of Kern County families. We recognize there are financial challenges but what we cannot not lose sight of is that quality patient care must be a priority,” she wrote in an email response to a reporter’s questions. “We look forward to meeting with Mr. Judd where KMC employees will have true and meaningful input to address budget issues where services and community come first.”
The time frame for the layoffs and the size of that workforce reduction have not been decided, Judd said.
He said the hospital already has shrunk its staffing — without layoffs — by the equivalent of 60 full-time employees through attrition and by reducing the number of hours people work.
Nilon said the process of laying off a portion of the more than 1,400 workers at Kern Medical Center will be complicated.
The union and the county have written agreements that guarantee some workers a certain number of hours, Nilon said. Any changes would have to be negotiated.
And there are specific rules, overseen by the Kern County Civil Service Commission, that govern layoffs.
"If (Judd) was going to lay off employees because of a budget, he cannot choose who he can lay off," Nilon said.
Workers who are laid off must be given a 30-day notice. Through management, they have the right to “bump” a person in the same classification who has less job seniority than they do.
The “bumped” employee then has a right to a 30-day notice and can, in turn, bump a less senior worker.
It was that complicated dance that had Maggard frustrated.
Judd acknowledged the need to move quickly.
“The KMC of today cannot be the KMC of the future,” Judd said. “The situation at KMC is creating a burden on the county of Kern. Its losses are beginning to impact the other services the county provides.”
There was a small bright spot in all the dark news out of KMC on Tuesday.
The hospital's payer mix — the share of the hospital's patients who have private insurance, Medi-Cal or no insurance at all — has taken a dramatic shift since the Affordable Care Act insurance came online in January.
The number of indigent patients, or people who can't pay for their care, has dropped dramatically and the number of Medi-Cal patients has jumped to 80 percent, meaning the hospital is recouping a higher portion of the cost of its care.