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Hospitals, Beset by Hard Times, Are Laying Off Workers : Health: An industry spokesman sees an increasing trend. Officials of local facilities say the cutbacks will not harm patient care.


LONG BEACH AREA — Hard hit by the recession and changes in the health industry, a number of area hospitals have laid off employees, eliminated hundreds of positions through attrition and cut some community programs.

Recently, the two largest hospitals in Long Beach and another in Bellflower have dismissed workers, a sign that patients are opting to stay in hospitals for shorter periods or are avoiding them altogether whenever possible. Other hospitals also are cutting back.

"We think it's an increasing trend," said David Langness, spokesman for the Hospital Council of Southern California, a nonprofit trade association. "We did an informal survey of 15 hospitals (in Los Angeles County) and all 15 had layoffs of some type in the past year."

Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, one of the city's largest employers, laid off 60 people last month, spokeswoman Jennifer Lefebvre said. This is the latest round of layoffs for the hospital, which now has 3,190 employees. Last year, Long Beach Memorial let 187 employees go and eliminated hundreds of vacant positions.

St. Mary Medical Center laid off 11 employees out of 2,200, eliminated another 18 positions and reduced some of its health education classes, spokeswoman Carolyn Carter said. St. Mary's last layoffs were in 1991, when 25 employees lost their jobs and another 20 positions were eliminated.

Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Bellflower, which has medical buildings across the southeast, laid off nine employees this year from a staff of 3,600, a spokeswoman said.

At Charter Hospital of Long Beach, a private psychiatric treatment center, officials reduced the staff by 20 positions in December because it had fewer patients, said spokesman Robert Mead.

In addition, the Long Beach Veterans Affairs Medical Center has eliminated 100 positions and plans to eliminate 100 more through attrition. The hospital, which employs 3,400 people, also is using fewer temporary workers, said spokeswoman Debra Dirkson. No layoffs are expected.

Langness, of the hospital association, said 60% of the hospitals in Southern California lost money last year.

"They're in deep financial trouble," Langness said. "We think that will deepen this year. There's a real crisis in health care in California."

Hospitals have been hit not only by the recession but by competition from health maintenance organizations. In addition, more people are opting to postpone or do without nonessential treatment.

"Hospital beds are more and more empty," Langness said. Today, area hospitals have about 48% of their beds filled on any given day, he said. Ten years ago, that number was closer to 60% or 70%, he said.

Officials at local hospitals said they do not believe the layoffs, which include nurses, clerks and managers, will hurt the quality of care for patients.

For Long Beach Memorial, the layoffs mark the latest setback prompted by a downturn in finances. Earlier this year, Standard & Poor's Corp., a national bond-rating service, lowered the hospital's credit rating when its parent company posted a net loss of $10 million during the 1991-92 fiscal year.

Standard & Poor's downgraded Memorial Health Services, the parent corporation of the Long Beach hospital and Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Orange County, from an AA bond rating to an AA-minus.

Lefebvre said Long Beach Memorial remains among the top-rated hospitals in the nation. Only 9% of the health care agencies in the country rate as high as the Long Beach hospital, she said.

No immediate relief is expected for any of Southern California's hospitals.

"Summer is a sluggish time for hospitals anyway, so we're not expecting an immediate turn around," said Carter of St. Mary Medical Center. "(And) we don't know what's going to happen with health reform."

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