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"Furloughs won't compromise patients' care"

Original source:

The Press-Enterprise

09:27 PM PST on Friday, February 6, 2009

Patient safety at Inland hospitals and nursing homes will not be compromised by mandated monthly state employee furloughs that began Friday.

Employees who provide patient care, including doctors, nurses and pharmacists at Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino, will work, as required by state licensing regulations and health care accreditation standards, said Nancy Kincaid, spokeswoman for the California Department of Mental Health. However, some hospital administration employees will take furloughs, she said.

Roughly 140 state inspectors who oversee the safety and quality at more than 100 Inland hospitals and nursing homes also will remain on the job, said Ken August, spokesman at the California Department of Public Health.

Employees who work on furlough days will bank their days and take them another time.

"Patients and residents should not be concerned," August said in a written statement. "The licensing staff will be able to respond to emergency situations, just like they currently do for situations that occur on weekends and holidays. The field offices will be open to receive complaints and facility-reported events and to respond accordingly."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered more than 200,000 state employees to take two days off a month without pay through June 2010 to save about $1.4 billion. The furloughs, most of which are to be taken the first and third Fridays of each month, are equivalent to about a 10 percent pay cut. The move closed many state offices on Friday.

San Bernardino County has 11,949 state employees, with 10,670 of them full time. Riverside County has 8,115 state employees, 7,475 of them full time, according to the state controller's office.

Offices charged with inspecting and investigating thousands of Inland day cares, adult residential care homes and other licensed facilities were closed Friday and will follow the furlough schedule, said Lizelda Lopez, spokeswoman for the California Department of Social Services.

"They are not first responders," she said. "So, what we need to stress to folks is if there is an emergency they need to call 911, fire department or police to get that taken care of right away. If there is an incident, they have to report those to us within 24 hours. So we will be following up on those."

Furloughs are among several state cost-saving moves, including the freezing of financing on thousands of public works projects.

California State Controller John Chiang also has delayed an estimated $1.9 billion in payments to taxpayers who filed their tax returns and are owed refunds. He also imposed a 30-day delay on payments to counties for welfare programs, vendor payments to state contractors and college tuition assistance to save another $1.5 billion.

The state Public Health Department performs annual nursing home inspections, plus investigates patient care complaints at hospitals and nursing homes. August said the furloughs will affect how quickly inspectors complete their work. But patient safety will be the department's main priority, he said.

Betsy Hite, spokeswoman for the nursing home industry's California Association of Health Facilities, said she is hopeful the furloughs won't keep inspectors from completing investigations.

The furloughs come after Schwarzenegger eliminated state funding for California's long-term care ombudsman program. The $3.8 million cut forced the closure of at least one of 33 programs statewide, despite state laws requiring ombudsmen to monitor nursing homes and residential care facilities and investigate complaints. Ombudsmen act as patient advocates and protect their safety and rights.

In October, Schwarzenegger's office said the governor was confident state Public Health Department inspectors would adequately respond to patient needs.

Pat McGinnis, executive director of the consumer group California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, said she is relieved nursing home inspectors will work on furlough days. But she is concerned that forced days off will delay completion of nursing home investigations and put patients at risk.

"It's going to be a field day for sub-standard facilities," McGinnis said. "Actions like these are always devastating for the frailest population in the state."