St, Charles receives federal funds to help with COVID care
Amid severe financial struggles, Central Oregon's regional hospital system is poised to receive a sizeable chuck of federal funds.
According to Sens. Jeff Merkley (D. Ore.) and Ron Wyden (D. Ore.), St. Charles Medical Center Foundation will be receiving a total of $12.79 million in federal funds for COVID-19 emergency response measures such as hiring additional staff, creating additional space for testing and treatment and more during the pandemic in Central Oregon.
"The economic fallout of this public health crisis landed hard on hospitals and clinics in Oregon and nationwide, generating massive, new and unexpected costs to pay for the emergency response measures carried out by the healthcare heroes battling to keep people safe and healthy," Wyden said.
Merkley added that health care systems and workers are "facing immense economic strains and challenges from years of combating the COVID crisis."
"The federal funding heading to the St. Charles Medical Center Foundation will boost emergency response measures, address staffing shortages, increase COVID-19 testing, diagnosis, and treatment, and much more to strengthen the fight against the public health crisis in Central Oregon," he said.
The federal funds are intended for a variety of lifesaving measures, including training doctors, nurses, and other staff in the proper usage of personal protective equipment (PPE); informing the public on healthy practices that help slow down the spread of COVID; Hiring additional doctors, nurses and other support staff to work exclusively on COVID response; Providing COVID testing and diagnosis and treatment for COVID positive patients; creating temporary facilities for additional space to test and treat COVID-related activities; surge bedding; and operating a modular space with drive through capabilities for pharmacy needs to serve infected patients and to help reduce congestion in their permanent facilities.
"St. Charles is grateful to Senators Wyden and Merkley for their help with expediting the release of nearly $13 million in FEMA grants," said Matt Swafford, St. Charles Health System's chief financial officer. "This funding, which covers some of the unanticipated costs the health system incurred at the height of the pandemic, is critically needed to support our operations and financial recovery."
In late May, St. Charles Health System announced the layoffs of 105 caregivers and elimination of 76 positions were already vacant.
"For the past two years, our caregivers have taken on and conquered unprecedented challenges to care for our community, which is why it feels particularly unfair that we now find ourselves in this position," said St. Charles president and CEO Joe Sluka. "While our financial situation isn't unlike many other health systems around the country, this decision hurts. These are our people."
The decision came even after taking aggressive steps to address its current financial challenges, which have included both reducing expenses and identifying revenue improvement opportunities. Despite those measures, the health system hemorrhaged $21.8 million through April.
The organization's expenses and revenue reportedly began deteriorating in the spring of 2020, when its contract labor, equipment and supply costs began to soar at the same time it was forced to significantly reduce the number of surgeries it performed due to pandemic-related restrictions and the need to preserve bed capacity to care for critically ill COVID-19 patients.
St. Charles said the imbalance persisted through 2021 as St. Charles experienced three significant surges of COVID-19 patients — at times operating up to 107% of its capacity — making it difficult to resume its pre-pandemic level of surgeries and other services. Further compounding St. Charles' financial stress is the repayment of the more than $95 million in federal funds it received over the last two years to support its operations.
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