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Health department cuts local employees

Four employees from the Pagosa Springs office of the San Juan Basin Health Department were terminated on Jan. 3, with more terminations coming down the pike, effective Jan. 20.

Now, some of those employees are questioning not only the staffing change, but the level of service to Archuleta County — though SJBHD Director Joe Theine indicated the level of service to Archuleta County would remain at its current level.

Peggy Bergon, Susie Kleckner, Kim Reedy and Mike Hackworth all received termination notices the week of Thanksgiving, along with two other SJBHD employees, then the four were terminated on the spot on Jan. 3, according to Bergon and Kleckner.

Theine said Hackworth was given the opportunity to retain his position at a decrease from five days a week to three with benefits, but that he refused the opportunity, leaving SJBHD to look at how to best supply environmental health services.

Theine indicated that the cuts are directly related to the cuts of the prenatal and personal care provider programs previously reported on in The SUN — programs department officials believed were adequately offered elsewhere in the community (Pagosa Medical Center in the case of prenatal care and by private companies in the case of PCP).

The cuts, Theine explained, were an effort to discontinue the department’s use of reserves to fund programs, and he said that more programs may be cut in the future if and when grant funding runs out.

In tightening its belt, SJBHD’s 2012 budget showed a 22-percent decrease — from a $6.65 million budget in 2011 to a $5.2 million budget in 2012.

But, for Pagosa Springs, that meant the reduction of staff, which caught affected staff by surprise.

“We did know that the restructuring was coming,” Bergon said. “We did not know how hard it was going to hit in Archuleta County. I think what really gets everybody is that it was so illogical, what they did.”

Bergon worked with the department beginning as a volunteer in the early 1980s, becoming a staff member in the mid ’80s. Minus a hiatus between 1997 and the mid 2000s, she has worked with the department about 20 years.

Kleckner added that there was no indication the staffing cuts would occur.

“I have an employee file with nothing negative,” Kleckner said, who worked with the department as nurse and nurse manager for nearly two decades, adding, “I gave my heart to my job.”

“It’s always hard to make decision about layoffs,” Theine said, adding that the department followed certain criteria about how to determine to best move forward within the department, based on the organization’s financial position.

Theine said many public health entities began laying off employees in 2008, equating to cutting about 20 percent, but that SJBHD had not cut staffing levels prior to this year.

And while the employees were caught off guard by their terminations, SJBHD board member and Pagosa Springs Medical Center CEO Brad Cochennet said the board was well aware of the coming changes.

“We all knew,” Cochennet said of the board. “He (Theine) had presented to the board the plans for making changes, so we knew he was going to change some programs that would impact people.”

But, according to Bergon and Kleckner, more than the staff will be impacted.

“My biggest concern isn’t that I lost my job. My concern is that the community isn’t going to get served,” Kleckner said.

“We took care of the voiceless in the community,” Bergon said. “That’s gone now.”

Bergon said she thinks the changes were made without considering the needs of the community, including the firing of experienced employees without looking at other options.

“I don’t see how they’re saving money,” Bergon added.

But, beyond the immediate layoffs, the maneuver by SJBHD has cost them a contract nurse, Susan Kuhns, who resigned after hearing about the layoffs.

“I’m really concerned about the layoffs that have been done because I really think it’ll hurt our community,” Kuhns said, adding that she thinks the needs of community have not been well represented to SJBHD, including at Tuesday’s needs assessment (see related article).

“I don’t think our community’s going to be receiving the care it needs. ... I don’t think they’re going to be able to do it with the scale-backs they’ve done,” Kuhns added.

“I just know how much work it takes and they’ve pretty much got rid of those who know the most,” Kuhns said of the future of programs in Pagosa. “They’re expecting one or two people to know so much; there’s so much to it, it’s always changing ... it’s just crazy.”

Kuhns said she understands that economics are at work in the decisions being made, but that, potentially, those who cannot afford health insurance will suffer.

Because of that, Kuhns indicated that, if changes are not made to better serve the community, she may look into public health options for her own clinic to help serve those in need.

Cochennet said he, too, is realizing there are additional needs in the community, such as the need for a greater downtown presence and more services to immobile residents, and indicated he is interested in looking at helping those populations without competing with private care providers.

“I would have to say that I’m paying a lot more attention to the fact that people see the location of the public health building much more than I understood,” Cochennet said.

The move has also left some wondering if Archuleta County is still getting its money’s worth with SJBHD.

Both Cochennet and Theine, however, believe that retaining SJBHD as a partnership between La Plata and Archuleta counties is an efficient way to serve both communities, and that Archuleta County continues to get more than the worth of its money contributed to SJBHD.

“I think we get an incredible deal,” Cochennet said, adding that the structure of a larger and a smaller county pairing together allows Archuleta County far more service than it would get for just its contribution.

“If you have to look at it from the overall efficiency ... there’s no way we could replace that for the amount of money that we contribute,” Cochennet said. “It really is an efficient way.”

Theine agreed, saying Archuleta County receives more than it contributes, with SJBHD providing its own building in Pagosa and staff traveling from Durango to Pagosa on a regular basis.

Theine said less than $600,000 of the organization’s total budget comes from contributions from Archuleta and La Plata counties.

Theine said SJBHD is still alive and well in Pagosa Springs, and that clients should continue to call for services.

randi@pagosasun.com

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