This article has been updated to incorporate additional reporting, including comment from the governor's office and a new PeaceHealth announcement confirming its ER closure date
Citing financial losses, PeaceHealth is moving forward with its efforts to close Sacred Heart University District Hospital in Eugene — including its emergency department on December 1 — and the health system is planning layoffs despite pleas from community members, unions and Gov. Tina Kotek to delay or cancel its plans.
However, the struggling health system has agreed to keep its behavioral services unit open on the site, thanks to a special state waiver. Meanwhile, to replace its emergency department it plans to locate an urgent care clinic there with lesser services and hours.
Those are “clear wins,” said Kevin Mealy, spokesperson for the Oregon Nurses Association, but the closure of the University District emergency department is a “huge loss for the community.”
People who experience houselessness often rely on emergency departments, and so do people experiencing drug withdrawals or psychosis. Effects of the emergency department's closure are expected to fall most heavily on those people, as well as other people in need of emergency services. They will face longer transport times to Sacred Heart Riverbend Hospital in Springfield —already known for having a heavily burdened emergency room— or Mackenzie-Willamette Medical Center, a much smaller hospital.
Spokespeople for the health system did not respond to questions about their timeline sent by The Lund Report Tuesday morning. But PeaceHealth sent a press release shortly after this article was first published, confirming the emergency department's closure at 7a.m. on Dec. 1. The system submitted a layoff notice to the state on Oct. 18 laying out potential layoffs and saying it had been informed it could close its emergency department on that date.
The layoffs “will occur throughout the next few months,” according to the notice sent to the state by PeaceHealth personnel manager Justin Thomas. “We expect some aspects of that campus to be completely closed by February 1, 2024. Currently on that campus there are 463 caregivers. Through our work we are looking to have opportunities for roughly 325 caregivers, displacing 129, however, some of those individuals may not choose to come work at the RiverBend hospital. We do have a severance policy in place for those that will be affected by this layoff.”
Unlike when Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center proposed closing its birth center, the closure of Sacred Heart University District Hospital does not require state approval. Kotek had met with PeaceHealth officials in September and followed up with a Sept. 21 letter urging the system to preserve behavioral health services and delay closure of the emergency room department for nine months.
Despite a records request sent by The Lund Report a month ago, Kotek's office has not provided follow-up correspondence with PeaceHealth, notwithstanding provisions in Oregon Public Records Law that prohibit undue delay.
But a copy of PeaceHealth's response to Kotek obtained elsewhere, dated Oct. 2, shows that PeaceHealth rebuffed Kotek's response to delay its ER closure, calling the costs “immense,” thanking her for her “perspective” on their timeline and proposing to site an urgent care clinic on the site instead. It also asked for help with a waiver it had requested to keep its behavioral health unit open and on site.
A Kotek spokesperson shared a comment Tuesday afternoon, saying her staff and Oregon Health Authority staff had worked with local government and other “stakeholders” to respond to the closure:
“While the Governor requested the emergency department remain open for no less than nine months, she is pleased to see PeaceHealth has at least committed to bridge services through expanded urgent care for at least nine months that will include a patient navigator and a mental health professional to help ensure presenting patients have access to a broader range of services.”
Keeping the behavioral health unit open and sited at the University District location required a state waiver, according to the comment.
“Another goal of the Governor’s was to ensure patient safety and access throughout PeaceHealth’s alternative service retention project plan. Accordingly, and to preserve behavioral health units and acute rehab capacity, OHA issued a conditional waiver and upon assurance, is on track to grant a waiver to operate the BHU as a satellite of RiverBend. These conditions will protect patient safety, require deep coordination and agreements with local government and transportation, in language communication, and more.”
In a statement on the health system website, Dr. James McGovern, interim chief executive and chief medical officer for PeaceHealth Oregon network was quoted as saying that during conversations with the state, “we were delighted to find a pathway with the Oregon Health Authority to maintain both inpatient behavioral health and inpatient rehabilitation services without interruption.”
Alan Dubinsky, communications director for SEIU Local 49, said PeaceHealth on Monday told the union that 46 members of its members will receive layoff notices, in jobs that include patient access representatives, lab assistants, mental health technicians, supply chain specialists and inventory control coordinators.
“We're going to be working with those workers on what next steps are,” he said. “SEIU Local 49 does strongly oppose this closure and we would love it if PeaceHealth would do the humane thing and reverse this decision to close University district hospital.
The union had submitted a petition urging the hospital to change course, saying its workers at Riverbend hospital were already facing short staffing and that the hospital was already operating at capacity.
PeaceHealth, in its layoff notice, said most of the employees affected by the closure are being given the opportunity to move to its Riverbend.
Mealy, of the nurses union, said it urged PeaceHealth to keep its behavioral health services unit open as it it is the only one of its kind in the region. As for the offer of going to work at Riverbend, many nurses are not interested, feeling “burned” by the PeaceHealth decision, he added.
PeaceHealth is not doing a great job of keeping its employees informed, he said. Those still at University District are at times showing up for their scheduled shifts only to be told they are not needed, because operations are “winding down.”
The union had organized a recent “die-in” protest at the hospital to urge the health system to stay open.