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DeGraff Memorial Hospital, citing a decline in business and reduced payments for services, announced Tuesday that it will lay off 69 of its 963 employees next month and reduce the working hours of 110 others.

Officials said the layoffs were not related to a pending merger with the Buffalo General Health System or an indication that the North Tonawanda hospital may close soon.

DeGraff intends to remain open, said Thomas Schifferli, president and chief executive officer.

But, he added, no hospital can remain open forever without patients.

"Unless the people living and working in this community choose to utilize our physicians and related medical services, there will not be a sufficient base of patients to support this hospital," he said.

In addition to revenues lost due to decreased business, the hospital faces an $810,000 cut in Medicare and Medicaid payments in 1998, officials said.

Schifferli said the hospital anticipates a significant financial loss for this year, although he would not specify an amount.

Representatives of Nurses United, Local 1168, Communications Workers of America, which represents 600 nurses and hourly workers at DeGraff, said the hospital would end the year with a $5 million deficit.

The layoffs, which will take effect Nov. 9, will include 59 union employees and 10 non-bargaining, non-management workers.

Employees working in 110 other positions will have their hours reduced.

One program will be cut -- the outpatient oncology and infusion center, which opened last November and had been closed recently because of lack of use.

Patients will be able to see their oncologists at DeGraff but now will receive their chemotherapy and other treatment at sites in Williamsville and Buffalo.

DeGraff Memorial operates 135 acute-care beds, a 20-bed rehabilitation unit and an 80-bed nursing home.

Union officials expressed hope that the pending merger of Buffalo General and DeGraff, as well as the larger consolidation of Buffalo General, Millard Fillmore Health System and Children's Hospital, will strengthen the smaller community hospital.

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