Layoffs called health threat 'Devastating effect' on poor seen if 22 jobs are cut

October 25, 1992|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Staff Writer

The planned layoffs of 22 Harford County Health Department staffers would jeopardize the quality of health care for thousands of residents, says county Health Officer Thomas M. Thomas.

Warning of a "devastating effect" on the poorest residents, he said the layoffs, announced two weeks ago, would force some hard choices. "It's like someone saying, 'You've got 10 fingers and 10 toes; which can you do without?" he said.

The hours of three clinics offering basic health care would be substantially reduced because of inadequate staffing, and at least two other clinics probably would have to be phased out, Mr. Thomas said.

In addition, he said, the reduction in staff would weaken the department's ability to monitor environmental health and may slow administrative work.

Mr. Thomas announced the layoffs with 90 days' notice on Oct. 9 in the wake of recent reductions in state aid to the agency totaling nearly $1 million. The layoffs would represent more than a quarter of the 82 jobs in traditional health services.

Mr. Thomas said that while the department may be able to absorb more than $400,000 of the cut, a deficit of $518,000 would have to be made up from other sources to avoid the layoffs. He has asked Harford County to make up the difference. Otherwise, he said, nine nurses, eight sanitarians in environmental health and five administrative workers would lose their jobs.

Mr. Thomas said while he hasn't completed a detailed plan of staff reduction, certain services are on the "horror list" unless the county agrees to help the department financially.

At the top of the list are the operating hours of the Health Department's three largest clinics -- family planning, maternity and child health -- which could be reduced as much as 50 percent, he said. All three clinics operate several times throughout the month at four county sites.

The three clinics serve about 3,300 clients a year, said Linda Stevens, the Health Department's director of nursing.

In addition, Mr. Thomas said the seizure/neurology clinic and the orthopedic clinic, both cut in last year's budget crunch, would be eliminated. The seizure clinic, which annually serves about 200 children and adults with neurological problems, operates five times a month in Edgewood only.

Mr. Thomas said clients of the phased-out clinics would have to look outside the Health Department for help, a difficult prospect for those who have little or no income. About 70 percent of Health Department clients are in medical assistance programs. The rest, he says, have no money for their bills or pay on a sliding scale.

Mr. Thomas said the department would try to refer displaced patients to private doctors willing to accept medical assistance clients or to clinics outside the county, if necessary.

Even those in the scaled-back clinics will suffer, says Ms. Stevens, because the reduced hours "certainly will be an inconvenience."

Health department officials say they're considering reducing the number of family planning clinics from 19 a month to 10 and rescheduling weekly maternity clinics at most sites to twice-monthly clinics. Family planning clinics, which provide counseling, physical exams and birth control to women, account for the largest number of the department's clients, at 1,800 a year.

The child health clinics, which treat about 1,000 children a year, would be reduced from operating six times a month to only three times, Mr. Thomas said.

The health department's budget, supported by state and Harford County funds, has been reduced by 25 percent since August, to about $2.9 million. Mr. Thomas has asked the county, which already provides about $1.7 million annually to the Health Department, to use some of the county's estimated $13.7 million surplus to help the department.

He delivered that plea last week to County Council members, who also sit as the county Board of Health.

"This is a devastating effect on the citizens of Harford County who are in the most need of health services," Mr. Thomas said. "[The cuts] we've experienced this year are unprecedented in my years with the Health Department."

While clinical cuts hurt the poor most, reductions in environmental and administrative areas would affect the entire county, he said.

He pointed out that reducing the environmental staff would result in things like less-frequent monitoring of restaurants and other food-handling sites and cause delays in reviewing plans for new facilities.

He also predicted possible delays in water and septic system inspections and a lapse in response time to citizens' complaints about environmental problems.

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