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L.A. County to Lay Off 300 Health Workers : Budget: Supervisors approve cuts to save $3.6 million. Employees say downsizing will tax an already stressed system.

March 22, 1995|CARLA RIVERA and TIMOTHY WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to dismiss more than 300 health employees, a move that will save the cash-strapped county about $3.6 million this fiscal year but has sparked concern about the impact on health services.

In all, about 300 employees will get pink slips, while about 100 more contract and temporary positions are scheduled to be eliminated. The layoffs are due to take effect on April 15.

Union officials, however, immediately criticized the move and said they will consider filing a lawsuit to stop the layoffs.

Robert C. Gates, director of the Department of Health Services, had proposed the layoffs as a way to partially bridge a $500-million budget shortfall in the health department. Gates contends that the layoffs reflect reduced patient caseloads and will not affect services.

"There will be no change in services," he said after Tuesday's decision. "This is about less people coming into our system and that's all it's about."

County health workers, however, dispute the idea that fewer patients are using health facilities. They maintain that the county's health care system is severely overstretched and that the job losses will only exacerbate the problems.

"I can't believe what they just did," said Tamara Bradfield, a four-year employee at High Desert Hospital who is director of the physicians education program at the Lancaster facility.

"They talk about downsizing because the (patient load) is so low, but if they downsize any more the whole concept of service will be irrelevant," she said. "My workload is overwhelming. They really need to better evaluate what they are doing."

No final decision has been made on which employees and positions are to be cut, Gates said. Originally, the health department announced that 1,200 layoffs would be needed, but by Tuesday, it had whittled down that number to about 344 county employees.

The changing estimates, which may not be finalized until employees receive their dismissal notices, angered several supervisors.

At Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar, an estimated 202 positions were scheduled to be eliminated, mostly from the hospital's obstetrics and gynecological staff. As has been the case at other county hospitals, there has been a decrease in the number of babies born at Olive View during the past three years.

Also in line for a sharp reduction is the hospital's psychiatric staff, scheduled to lose 54 positions.

High Desert Hospital is expected to avoid layoffs. But because the health department's estimates have changed so frequently during the past month, some employees still fear they will be dismissed.

The layoffs come as health officials are seeking to hire about 300 new workers in specialized fields to meet accreditation requirements. Department officials say those targeted for layoffs do not have the job skills to jump into the new positions.

But Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, noting the long waiting times for some outpatient services, questioned the wisdom of laying off productive workers.

"I'm concerned about laying off someone if we can put that person somewhere else and save money," Burke said, although she ended up voting for the layoffs.

Supervisors were able to extract a promise from the health department that any employee who was laid off would be hired by another county department with a staff shortage.

"The absolute last resort should be for people to be laid off," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a former Los Angeles city councilman. "In the city, when we faced a situation like this, we were able to place people in other departments, and I urge that every priority be made to do that."

In the end, though, the vote for layoffs was unanimous.

The current deficit stems from a decision by federal health authorities to deny a claim by the county for more than $600 million in Medi-Cal reimbursements. The county had included the disputed funds in its 1994-95 fiscal year budget.

Officials estimate that the 1995-96 health budget will be more than $600 million in the red and that the county overall could begin the fiscal year with a $1-billion budget shortfall.

The supervisors were sympathetic to the workers' concerns but, citing the likelihood of substantial budget deficits next year, went ahead with the plan.

However, the board did agree to prohibit health officials from replacing displaced county employees with lower-paid contract workers, who do not receive county benefits.

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