OHSU money woes: "It's all Jordaan Clarke's fault"
The bad fiscal news from up on Pill Hill took a turn for the worse just before the holiday weekend. Now they're going to lay off a couple hundred employees or more, because they're broke and have to start cutting some programs. This is disastrous news for the affected workers, and potentially catastrophic for some patients as well.
The management explanation of the move ranks among the most clutsy p.r. strategies in recent Oregon bureaucratic history -- and that's saying a lot. The reason for the layoffs and cutbacks, they say, is the Oregon Supreme Court's recent ruling that the statutory $200,000 cap on OHSU liability for negligence by its staff was unconstitutional. Now OHSU will have to buy actual malpractice insurance, and that's so expensive, the institution says, that it has no choice but to pass out the hundreds of pink slips. As the O reported it on Friday:
Oregon Health & Science University plans to announce today that it will cut 200 to 300 jobs, raise tuition by 10 percent to 25 percent, trim construction on Portland's South Waterfront, and restructure or close a score of clinical, research and education programs.Tying the medical school's fiscal crisis to the court decision, in the case brought by the family of Jordaan Clarke, is such a flimflam. For one thing, OHSU has been crying the blues about lack of money for several months now. Even before the ruling, the high-priced prez of the institution was moaning about running out of money in 20 months, or some such thing.
The cutbacks are OHSU's first specific responses to an Oregon Supreme Court ruling in late December that cleared the way for the family of a brain-damaged child to pursue millions of dollars in malpractice damages from the university.
The ruling effectively eliminated a liability cap of $200,000 designed to protect state agencies from major damage awards.
Moreover, the adverse court case was certainly not a surprise. Everyone had seen it coming for quite a while. No one on the state's high court thought that OHSU's position had any merit. Neither did the Court of Appeals, which also ruled unanimously against the hospital on the issue that has now been resolved.
And so what's the responsible way for OHSU to react? One thing it could have done would be to go to the Legislature with a generous new cap -- maybe $2 million or so, to be automatically adjusted for inflation every year. With that in place, the next thing would be to bite the bullet, go into the market, and buy malpractice coverage, just like pretty much every other hospital and doctor you know does. Yes, it's expensive, but when your personnel violate established standards of care and wreck someone's life, the insurance is there to make the victim whole. That's how the law works for everyone else, and it should apply to OHSU as well.
Even if the docs didn't get the public policy job done in the last legislative session, surely they could be doing it right now, in the regularly scheduled "special" session that's about to begin. You get your high-priced lobbyist, you go to Salem, you cut a deal.
But apparently, no. From OHSU we seem to be getting a much different program. Whine about it. Lay off a bunch of people. Tell the world the sky is falling. Throw a tantrum.
It's not a sympathetic picture. And of course, the public wants to hear none of it. OHSU has been blustering and bullying its way around Portland for at least a decade now, most recently threatening to run to Hillsboro unless it got its way with its outlandish land use plans. It built its foolish health club building and infernal aerial tram [rim shot], blowing tens of millions and lying through its teeth about the costs. The folks running the place thought the school and its good buddy Neil Goldschmidt would make themselves a nice killing in real estate speculation.
But it didn't work out that way. The health club is reliably reported to be hemorrhaging money at the rate of $1 million a year. The SoWhat District biotech-nanotech fantasy self-deflated at the slightest pinprick. The tram, which cost OHSU -- what? $40 million to build? -- is now costing them probably a million and a half a year to run. Rumors are swirling that OHSU is still obligated by its contracts with the city or the condo weasels to build a new parking garage in SoWhat, at a cost in the mid-eight figures, over the next few years.
And when all these chickens come home to roost? Blame it on the justices of the Supreme Court. Blame it on those damn trial lawyers. Blame it on Jordaan Clarke.
My heart goes out to the people who are about to lose their jobs up there, but if they were smart, they'd realize where their gripe really lies. It's with Dr. Peter Kohler and his captive board, who created the mess the place is in today. And with their cheerleaders on the O editorial board, who helped them sell their ill-conceived empire and will continue to blow smoke around it long after the furloughed workers have cleaned out their desks.
In the end, the people of Oregon probably could be persuaded to provide more financial support to OHSU. But they're going to have to be convinced that the arrogance and short-sightedness that built the aerial tram and the toney salt-water swim club are things of the past. So far, we're not seeing any such change in attitude.