Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation to furlough or lay off hundreds of employees due to pandemic

YKHC consists of a regional hospital in Bethel, nine regional facilities and 47 village clinics. The corporation employs around 1,500 people and has an annual payroll of $70 million.

The economic pain of the coronavirus pandemic has spread to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta’s largest employer. Restrictions on travel and elective procedures meant to slow the spread of coronavirus have slashed the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation’s revenue. Beginning next week, YKHC will begin furloughing and laying off 300 employees.

The job cuts will occur in four categories: workers who are immediately laid off, workers who are furloughed, workers who volunteer for furlough and workers whose hours are cut in half. It’s a decision that YKHC President and CEO Dan Winkelman said he never wanted to make.

“I can feel and empathize with the pain people are going to be experiencing,” he said.

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YKHC employs more than 1,400 people across the region.

Employees placed on furlough will retain their health care benefits, and YKHC will continue paying into their premiums. Winkelman said that continuing health insurance coverage for furloughed employees was a top priority for him and the YKHC board. The furloughs will last four weeks. If revenue increases over that time, furloughed employees will be brought back to work, he said. If not, more layoffs will occur.

Winkelman said that the job losses are too large to provide workers with severance pay, but employees who resign or are laid off can cash out their unused paid time off. YKHC is encouraging furloughed and laid-off employees to apply for unemployment benefits, and e-mailing them information on how to access those resources.

RELATED: Here’s what YKHC is doing now to fight COVID-19

“I want our workers, and I want the region to know that YKHC will be advocating for the congressional delegation to extend unemployment insurance benefits for the entire duration of this COVID-19 epidemic,” Winkelman said.

The YKHC employees who are temporarily or permanently losing their jobs will mainly be non-health care providers.

“We’re going to safeguard all our providers who provide direct patient care,” Winkelman said. “The main reason is, if we see a COVID surge of patients in the Y-K Delta we need to secure our staff.”

YKHC’s revenue losses began in late March. Winkelman said that the health corporation began seeing a decline in patients “immediately” after the Dunleavy administration issued restrictions on non-essential travel and elective procedures. More than half of YKHC’s revenue comes from Medicaid, and the state canceled most Medicaid travel from villages.

Currently, patient visits at the Bethel hospital are down 50 percent. At the village clinics, they’re down by 20 percent. YKHC has expanded telehealth, but that service is not able to close the gap. Overall, YKHC is losing $5 to $8 million a month, and the funding YKHC received from the CARES Act cannot cover its losses. That money, totaling $15 million, is reserved for the coronavirus response, and so far YKHC has spent less than a quarter of it.

Winkelman said that YKHC has applied for other funding, but the most recent congressional allocations are for hospitals hit hard by COVID-19 cases, which thankfully does not include YKHC.

The job cuts follow a national trend. Becker’s Hospital Review reported that 191 hospitals across the U.S. are furloughing workers due to revenue losses as a result of the pandemic.

Change could be on the horizon to help boost patient numbers and revenue. New health mandates allowed YKHC to reopen its dental clinic on April 24 for oral exams and cleanings. It also plans to reopen optometry and physical therapy in the coming weeks.

As of 10 a.m. on April 24, YKHC had conducted 317 COVID-19 tests: 229 tests are negative, 84 are pending and one is positive. Three specimens were rejected by a private lab.

Read YKHC President and CEO Dan Winkelman’s email to YKHC staff about the upcoming furloughs and layoffs.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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