EDITORIAL Uncertainty precedes health center takeover

The sale of the Washington County Health Center is generating concern among workers about the security of their jobs.

Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Exterior of the Observer-Reporter building in Washington.

It’s safe to say that no one thought the pending privatization of Washington County Health Center would go off without a hitch, or without some level of controversy.

The sale of this venerable public facility, which has had a reputation for top-notch care through its many years of operation, was bound to raise concerns, not just over maintaining standards at the center, but about what might happen to the workers there.

We could be close to getting some answers about the second issue. According to a story by Barbara Miller in Wednesday’s edition of the Observer-Reporter, Service Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania, which represents health center workers, called them in for a meeting to advise that dozens of jobs in the dietary, laundry and housekeeping departments might be outsourced by new owner Premier Healthcare Management LLC, which is expected to complete its $26.9 million purchase of the center within the next couple weeks. There was no guidance on what might happen to the positions of nurses and nurse’s aides, who number more than 100.

Said an SEIU Healthcare spokesman, “They have given us no communication on plans or ideas or restructuring.”

We do know that union members who continue to be employed at the center after Premier takes over still will be represented by the SEIU unit, but Lisa Sofia, chief executive officer of Premier, did not return a call seeking further clarification.

Carlos Rivera, SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania’s director of long-term care, gave the O-R a statement in which he said, “Washington County Health Center is a four-star facility, and the community, front-line workers and seniors who call it home are counting on new management to keep it that way. That means maintaining job standards by not outsourcing nursing home labor to the lowest bidder or creating undue uncertainty over future employment. And finally, it means a commitment to negotiating a fair, new union contract that will move job and resident care standards forward, not backward.”

We certainly sympathize with folks who have worked at the health center for years – some of them for many years – and now are left wondering whether they’ll have a job in a matter of weeks. At the same time, we recognize Premier is a business and is in business to turn a profit. That’s been a real problem at the health center. Since 2012, the county has had to spend more than $9 million to stem the flow of red ink at the center, and Premier is not going to allow that to continue. Nor should it be expected to, and like it or not, one way to turn the center into a profitable enterprise, rather than a money-bleeding operation, is to cut personnel costs.

Of course, it is our hope Premier will strive to the best of its abilities to preserve the jobs of the center’s current employees and maintain something close to the quality of care we have come to expect from “our” health center. The facility will, of course, continue to be subject to a variety of inspections designed to ensure patient care is meeting applicable standards.

There’s never a good time to lose a job, but if some health center employees find themselves without work as a result of this transition, they can at least take some solace in the knowledge that our area’s economy is on rather sound footing, and other employment should be available. Again, this is not something we wish for anyone, but it’s a reality that must be recognized.

The strong local economy, bolstered in no small part by the Marcellus Shale industry, has enabled the county to maintain the health center as a public entity for as long as it has. But it simply would not have been good governance to allow county taxpayers to continue bearing the cost as the health center lost millions upon millions of dollars, year after year.