LEWISTON — Central Maine Healthcare is looking to lay off employees in an effort to fill a $10 million budget gap left by unpaid hospital bills, MaineCare debt and fewer paying patients.
Central Maine Healthcare is the parent company of Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, Rumford Hospital and Bridgton Hospital.
Spokesman Chuck Gill confirmed Wednesday that the hospital group is considering layoffs. He said he could not yet say how many people would lose their jobs, which departments would be affected or when the layoffs would occur. He expected to have that information "soon."
"I don't have any type of formal announcement about what we're doing for next steps," Gill said. "We're looking at all options now."
Although Central Maine Healthcare is looking at the entire hospital system, its primary concern is CMMC, the largest of the hospitals. Officials believe most layoffs and other money-saving efforts will be centered there.
Gill blamed the hospital system's financial problems, in part, on $56 million the state has owed it for MaineCare since 2007. That debt is rising by more than $1 million each month, Gill said.
The hospital system is also seeing more MaineCare patients, which is a problem because the state doesn't pay the full cost of caring for people with MaineCare, Gill said. MaineCare is the state's health insurance program for low-income and disabled people. Other people are going to the hospital less often, and those who do are more likely not to pay their bills, he said.
CMMC is building a new, multimillion-dollar emergency room and lab to replace its smaller, outdated ones, but that project has not affected the hospital system's budget, Gill said. Construction costs have been paid with bonds.
In July, Central Maine Healthcare announced it had halted hiring, frozen wages and issued a two-month suspension of its earned-time program, through which employees earn vacation days.
"We had hoped in July that things would start turning around, and they haven't," Gill said.
To save money, the hospital system has renegotiated contracts with vendors and has looked at ways to manage patient care more efficiently, Gill said. It has also "drastically curtailed" administrative spending, travel, conferences and other expenses. Gill declined to say Wednesday exactly how much was cut.
"I think the better thing is to put it all in context and give you a more complete list (at a later date)," he said.
Despite its efforts, the hospital group has been unable to save the money it needs to balance its budget this fiscal year. Although officials don't have a final figure, they expect to be at least $10 million over budget. Gill said it's possible the figure will be closer to $13 million.
"There's multiple projects under way (to save money)," he said. "The problem is, with the $56 million problem hanging over our heads, we don't have the time to wait for some of those projects — which we think will come through with lots of savings — to happen, because you can't turn anything around overnight."
Gill said the hospital system would soon announce how it plans to deal with the shortfall, including possible layoffs.
"Our first priority is to make sure we maintain the highest possible patient care," he said. "This is an evolving story; we don't have a final answer yet. I would say soon. I don't know if it'll be this week, but I would say soon."
St. Mary's Regional Medical Center, Lewiston's other hospital, has also struggled in the weak economy. Although it hasn't seen a drop in patients, it has seen a 53 percent increase in unpaid hospital bills. It is also owed $20 million for MaineCare patients.
Spokeswoman Jennifer Radel said St. Mary's spent the past year restructuring to save money and make patient care more efficient. Although one senior manager lost his position in the restructuring, St. Mary's is not expecting a round of layoffs.