UC layoffs prompt protest

February 10, 2009 3:29:18 PM PST
News of layoffs at the University of Chicago Medical Center is not sitting well with union workers.Dozens walked a picket line on Tuesday afternoon to protest the cutbacks.

On Monday, the hospital announced it is eliminating 450 clerical and administrative jobs in an effort to cut $100 million from its budget.

No one from the medical staff is being laid off.

However, the layoffs will impact the hospital's emergency room and who the hospital chooses to treat there.

In the course of a year, the emergency room at the University of Chicago Hospitals receives upwards of 80,000 patients. The hospital figures about 40 percent of them don't need immediate emergency care and so there are changes coming in how the ER will operate.

Over the years, patients who've come to U. of C. emergency room - even if they don't need emergency care - have been treated anyway, and are then referred to a community health center closer to their homes, less expensive. There are roughly 20 of them, part of the University of Chicago's Urban Health Initiative.

What happens now is patients who come to the university hospitals will be evaluated, but if they don't need emergency care, they'll be directed to one of the neighborhood centers for their treatment.

"What we're trying to do is do the medical assessments at the beginning of the visit and to make the determination does someone have a condition that needs to be seen today or would it be more appropriate for them to be seen at one of our partner health centers," said Dr. Eric Whitaker, University of Chicago Hospitals.

The intent is to bring greater efficiency and economy to a busy ER, but there are critics.

On Tuesday afternoon, a group of University of Chicago workers and their union leaders protested Monday's announced lay-offs of 450 employees. One of them is Sherri Taylor Kennedy, a 14 year secretary in pediatric surgery who says the new emergency room protocols amount to patient dumping.

"If you're a public aid recipient and want to come here for routine care, you won't get it here. They'll send you elsewhere," said Sherri Taylor-Kennedy.

"This is part of their shift from treating the poor and treating working people to trying only to do the most lucrative procedures. This is a crime and they should be ashamed of what they're doing," Richard Berg, Teamsters Local 743 president.

A shift in operations like this does not come without risk. Whitaker acknowledges it may not be perfect, but it is, he says, a necessary step.

"An emergency room is a scarce resource and we are stewards and have to think about how best to get the right patients in that setting," said Dr. Whitaker.

The staff cutbacks in clerical and administrative jobs announced on Monday will quite likely lead to longer waits for patients in general, but the changes in emergency room practice will - in theory - cut down on waits times in the ER because patient load will be reduced.

The changes will take effect in about three weeks.