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Patient Representative Gets Axed At Inova Mount Vernon

During last Thursday's meeting of the Southeast Health Planning Task Force, it was acknowledged that Inova Health System has trimmed their budget by $22 million. Of that total, $1.8 million was taken from Inova Mount Vernon Hospital.

Patrick Walters, senior vice president, Inova Health System, said, "Cuts were made across the board at all of our facilities. It was not an easy task."

The cuts were necessary to maintain financial stability, according to Inova Health System. A $30 million shortfall in estimated income was discovered in recent months.

In order to compensate for the lost revenue of $1.8 million, Inova Mount Vernon eliminated 32 staff positions. "Most of the cuts were in administrative spots, not in patient care," said Susan Herbert, vice president and administrator, Inova Mount Vernon Hospital. "This was not an easy task."

When asked by Task Force member, Jeffrey C. McKay, chief of staff to Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman, for a list of positions eliminated, Herbert refused. She justified her stance by saying, "It would not be fair to the people eliminated."

McKay explained that he wanted the information to respond to a myriad calls he was receiving asking what positions had been cut. "People are concerned about services at the hospital and I don't have any information to give them," he emphasized.

When Herbert still refused, McKay said, "Then I'll never be able to answer these callers who say the people who were eliminated were giving more to the hospital than they were costing it. We are not only getting calls but letters from doctors and others wanting some information and I can't respond."

ONE OF THOSE letters, which was also sent to the Gazette, was from Arthur J. Norton of Ridgecrest Drive, Alexandria, a longtime volunteer in the hospital's Patient Representative Program. That program has been headed by Janet Gilbert who has served the hospital for more than 20 years. Her position was one of those eliminated. Her last day is July 31.

The program serves as an ombudsman for patients to balance the needs of both the patients and the hospital. "We make regular visits to the patients and report their needs back to Janet, who then works with the patient and staff to try and resolve any complaints," Norton explained.

"I, and the others are all volunteers, so it doesn't cost the hospital anything for us, only for Janet who is a staff member," Norton said. The salary scale for a Patient Representative is in the $50,000 to $70,000 range.

There is a team of volunteers who work Monday through Friday of each week, according to Norton. "If anything can assist in patient care it's the Patient Representative Program," Norton insisted.

IN HIS LETTER to Knox Singleton, CEO, Inova Health System, and Jolene Tormabini, COO, Inova Health System, Norton stated, "The role of the Patient Representative is increasingly important in today's health-care system. Better hospitals have active Patient Representative programs.

"Consumer advocates advise that Patient Representative programs be considered before selecting a hospital... The Patient Representative acts as intermediary, interpreter, mediator, and counselor to patients, their families, as well as to the hospital staff...To characterize these functions as unimportant in the context of patient care is short-sighted and ill-informed."

In characterizing the decision to eliminate the Patient Representative position at Inova Mount Vernon as "nonclinical" and "not affecting patients," Norton finds indefensible.

"The health care industry has, and will continue to have, varied and difficult challenges. Managers and administrators must use sound judgment in making difficult and often painful program and personnel decisions," he said.

He noted, "Informed decisions, no matter how draconian they may seem, can be defended." But, he insists, "The elimination of IMVH's Patient Representative position cannot be defended in any sensible or logical way — and certainly cannot be dismissed as not affecting patient care."

HE DEFENDED Janet Gilbert's efforts in this area of medical service by stating, "I know from first-hand experience of her dedication and effectiveness. I am proud to have served with her. I have often told patients that they were very fortunate to have chosen IMVH because of the presence of one of the very best Patient Representatives in the country."

He noted, "Little things mean a lot to patients. I know from personal experience. And, it's not just the patients who benefit from the Patient Representative Program, it's the staff as well. The Patient Representative works for both sides."

Norton said, "I believe that a convincing argument can be made that the Patient Representative's role is vital and, unquestionably, cost effective. Inova's failure to recognize the economic and quality advantages of this low-cost, high-yield program is truly mystifying."