Local News

Furloughs could prove costly to UNC Healthcare

Posted May 28, 2009 5:25 p.m. EDT
Updated May 28, 2009 7:33 p.m. EDT

— UNC Healthcare officials are scrambling to find ways to furlough physicians, nurses and other workers under budget-cutting measures ordered by Gov. Beverly Perdue.

Perdue last month said all state workers needed to take a 0.5 percent pay cut to help balance the state budget, and workers will take 10 extra hours off in exchange for the cut.

"We are all state employees," said Karen McCall, UNC Healthcare vice president for public affairs and marketing. "It's going to be expensive for us."

McCall said the hospitals and clinics the health system operates will need to pay overtime to workers to cover for employees on furlough.

Nurse Pebbles Elsasser said the furloughs will impact patient care.

"There's always going to be sick people. There's always going to be that car accident. There is always going to be that trauma," Elsasser said. "It has to be a lot of rearranging to schedules to give these people their 10 hours."

The health system's financial challenges go beyond furloughs.

State money usually helps offset the losses the system sustains by treating low-income and uninsured patients. The system received $46 million from the state's general fund last year for charity care and graduate education.

"There's a lot of people that can't pay now," McCall said, adding that officials aren't sure how much money they'll get in the upcoming state budget to offset uncompensated care.

UNC Healthcare projects $300 million in uncompensated care next year, up from $270 million this year and $155 million in 2005.

Elsasser said the state's budget woes have become very personal. Her husband is looking for a job and her daughter is recovering from brain surgery, so any cut to her pay hurts.

"These are human beings. It's not just money," she said. "It's almost like you go to your child and you say, 'Guess what? Would you rather have your medication so that you can continue to live every day, or would you rather eat, or do I have gas money to get to work?'

"It feels like we are being discriminated (against)," she said. "The state employees are taking the burden of this for everyone."