Concern over Sebastian River Hospital grows


As the clock ticked down to pay day, employees at Sebastian River Medical Center were increasingly anxious as to whether Steward Healthcare – trying desperately to raise the additional funds needed to get through to an August bankruptcy auction of its hospitals – would be able to make this Friday’s payroll.

In an interview, a retired senior administrator – long known to this reporter – who said she remains in touch with a number of SRMC nurses, painted a picture of an increasingly troubled hospital with a frazzled staff stretched thin, and worrying about both their patients and their jobs.

Inspectors from the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration have been on-site twice in the past few weeks, they said, conducting inspections and asking employees about working conditions, supplies and patient care. There’s a lot of pressure to paint a rosy picture, to not be singled out as the person who complained.

But even though some hospital staffers assured our reporters the hospital was fully functioning in the early days of the bankruptcy, it is not business as usual, this source said.

Nurses angry over the positive reports had told her parking spots for physicians were full not because the hospital was full of doctors, she said, but because a certain disregard for order has taken over to some extent, and “people park wherever they want.”

The census of patients in the hospital has been way down in June, she reported, with all but emergent cases, or people too sick to transport, opting to go to Cleveland Clinic Indian River or Health First Palm Bay Community Hospital.

Nurses and other employees have been burning their sick time, and the lucky ones who have found good jobs elsewhere have departed, leaving the remaining staff overworked, and scrambling for even the most basic supplies. Departments have begun hoarding things like copy paper and pens, and the printer ink is now under lock and key like a controlled substance.

Arriving for their shift, nurses don’t quite know where they’ll be working or what they will be doing, or if they will be called to float to another floor before it’s time to go home. The two 30-minute breaks that nurses are entitled to per shift are also falling by the wayside when staffing is scarce, they say, so nurses at times work 13 hours and only get paid for 12 or 12.5 hours.

Decent staff meals used to be produced by the hospital, but with vendors more and more leery that they won’t get paid, and the hospital having been sued by one food vendor for delinquent bills, more often than not, the best option employees have when they don’t pack a sack lunch is a food truck in the parking lot.

Vending machines sit empty – all the soda, candy and chips either taken back by the vendor, or never filled once sold out.

Mealtime for patients is often a joke, as staffers say patients laugh that they shouldn’t ask for an extra applesauce or extra toast because the hospital is broke.

Even outside of work, employees must deal with the fact that the whole community is aware that the operator of SRMC has filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. One employee who made the mistake of stopping at Walmart in her scrubs said she was accosted in the aisle while picking up groceries on her way home by a stranger who told her, “You guys need to pay your bills,” referring to a number of local companies who, in good faith, have supplied the hospital with goods and services only to be left with unpaid invoices and the option to file a claim in federal bankruptcy court and hope for the best.

She explained to them that she’s not the person in charge of paying the bills. Who is paying the bills for Sebastian River Medical Center right now? Is anyone paying the bills?

As of press time Monday, no financing plan had been announced to tide Steward over the eight or nine weeks until the bidding closes on all 31 hospitals, and on the physicians’ group called Stewardship Health.

Some employees at Sebastian River see their direct deposits credited to their bank accounts overnight on Thursday mornings, but technically, pay day is every other Friday. This Friday. If employees don’t see their money by Friday morning, it’s unclear if the hospital will be able to function.

Nurses and other licensed practitioners who walk off the job on Friday if they don’t get paid may be called to answer for abandoning their patients if there’s no one to take over the care. Those who don’t show up for work on Friday night or Saturday could be terminated.

Those who can moonlight have taken on per diem work at other hospitals to get their foot in the door if they need to find another job quickly. In the daily exchange at the nurses’ station of “What do you know? What are you hearing?” co-workers at SRMC have discovered that they’re competing with each other for open positions at Palm Bay Community Hospital on Malabar Road, and at Cleveland Clinic.

Their greatest hope is that a solid, responsible and professional operation comes in to manage the hospital – sooner than later. They love their patients. Their colleagues are like family and they would love to stay in Sebastian and to continue to be of service, but not under the current conditions.

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