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Petaluma Health Care District eyes hospital cuts

It's been the mantra of hospitals across the nation since before the Affordable Care Act became law: Obamacare means less money for hospitals.

Last Thursday, Petaluma felt the full weight of that concept when St. Joseph's Health — which has been saying it needs to cut $15 million from its annual budget since April — laid off 11 Petaluma Valley Hospital employees to help reduce costs. The not-for-profit healthcare provider also laid off 26 employees from Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

The cuts come at a pivotal time for St. Joseph's in Petaluma. The healthcare provider has been operating the hospital for the Petaluma Health Care District since the late 1990s, when it signed a 20-year lease. That expires in 2017. As the contract winds down, St. Joseph's has expressed a desire to continue running Petaluma Valley, despite losing money over the past several years.

Meanwhile, the Petaluma Health Care District has begun studying operations at the hospital, expecting to complete an analysis of St. Joseph's management of the facility within the next 12 months. At that point, the Health Care District will decide to either sign a new lease with St. Joseph's or put the hospital contract out to bid — putting St. Joseph's actions under closer scrutiny.

"The action we're taking to make Petaluma Valley a financially stable hospital is going to make the district's decision that much easier," said Petaluma Valley Hospital Vice President Jane Read. "It's always difficult when you're affecting people's lives, but we're doing it for the good of the community overall."

Petaluma Health Care District CEO Ramona Faith said that the district understands the financial difficulties hospitals are facing, but will be closely watching operations at the hospital to make sure the level of care remains the same.

"We want to continue to have a high-quality hospital serving this community, no matter what," said Faith. "That's the district's first priority."

Dr. Mike Johnson, medical director of the Petaluma Valley Hospital operating room, said that maintaining the same level of care with fewer people is very difficult.

"You can only cut so much before care is affected and I think we're there," he said.

Under the Affordable Care Act — a healthcare reform that pushes for more preventative care and less emergency and critical care services — hospitals nationwide will have their Medicare funding cut and receive lower insurance reimbursements. While clinics and facilities that offer healthcare specifically designed to keep patients out of hospitals, like the Petaluma Health Center, are seeing a rise in federal funding and insurance payments, hospitals say they are struggling.

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