One of Bangor’s major health care providers is struggling to recover from a nearly $4 million financial deficit it accrued last year, in part due to patients being slow to seek out health care following the COVID-19 pandemic.
After seeing a financial gain of $200,000 in 2021, Penobscot Community Health Care saw a pre-audit financial deficit of $3.9 million in 2022, according to PCHC spokesperson Kate Carlisle.
While PCHC has made staffing cuts and consolidated its physical footprint to save money on real estate, none of these changes have reduced access to care for its roughly 60,000 patients, most of whom are in the Bangor region.
PCHC is the latest local health care facility trying to recover from the financial burdens and staffing shortages brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
PCHC has nearly 900 employees and oversees about 20 clinics in Bangor, Brewer, Old Town, Winterport, Belfast, Jackman and two in local high schools.
Before the pandemic, PCHC had approximately 65,000 regular patients, and that revenue was responsible for the majority of the agency’s operating budget, Carlisle said. In the last year, PCHC providers saw only 60,000 patients.
While hospitals can blame lower post-pandemic patient counts on the halting of elective surgeries and procedures, Carlisle said there’s no clear reason for why people are slower to return to their regular primary and preventive care providers.
“For some, it may just be that they got ‘out of the habit’ over 2.5 years of pandemic restrictions, and the ensuing worry about entering a health care setting,” Carlisle said. “For others, it may be that priorities have shifted during COVID. We’ve seen some big societal shifts with the pandemic, and that may be the case with people’s health care choices.”
In addition to patient volumes being slow to rebound, Carlisle said rising costs of providing care, losing providers and the expiration of pandemic-related grant funding further contributed to the organization’s financial crunch.
While the agency is “continuing to evaluate areas where we can reduce expenses and improve revenue,” PCHC leadership predicts financial recovery will take two years, if not more, Carlisle said.
In the last six months, PCHC eliminated 13 positions to cut costs, though some of those employees took on different roles within the organization, Carlisle said.
In another effort to reduce its deficit, PCHC has been evaluating its “physical footprint” because employees began to or continued to work remotely or adopted a hybrid work habit, which constitutes some time at home and some in a facility.
This led PCHC to sell two non-clinical properties and end its lease of an administrative building on Odlin Road in Bangor.
The Odlin Road building housed 35 employees who oversaw patient records and referrals, billing and other communications, Carlisle said. On April 1, those employees will be moved to another administration building on Maine Avenue.
The organization expects to save $600,000 annually by ending that lease and the associated building maintenance costs, Carlisle said. No employees will be laid off in the transition.
PCHC also made changes to employee benefits, including requiring workers with spouses who have access to insurance coverage through their employers to switch off PCHC’s insurance and onto their spouse’s coverage. Carlisle said about 50 employees made the insurance switch, which saved PCHC $500,000.
While PCHC has made a variety of behind-the-scenes changes in an effort to reduce its deficit, Carlisle said none have reduced patients’ access to care. Instead, PCHC has worked to reduce barriers to care for patients and expand clinics’ capacities.
The agency launched new software that allows patients to communicate with providers, as well as register, check in and make payments digitally. PCHC also recruited 53 providers last year, including more primary care registered nurses, although vacancies remain, Carlisle said.
PCHC isn’t the only health care agency in Maine left grappling with a financial deficit from sluggish patient volumes and other challenges during and following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Northern Light Health, the Bangor region’s largest health care system with 10 hospitals statewide, also has made changes in recent months to fight back a $131.7 million operating loss on more than $2 billion in revenue during its 2022 fiscal year.
Those operational and administrative changes include partnering with a national company to manage most behind-the-scenes administrative functions, which is expected to save Northern Light $1 billion over the next decade.
Northern Light’s other recent money-saving moves include the closure of Eastern Maine Medical Center’s primary care practice in Orono, the closure of an inpatient rehabilitation program at EMMC and a restructuring of the system’s walk-in care clinic in Bangor that will task nurse practitioners and physician assistants, rather than doctors, with providing most care.