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Faced with a projected deficit of between $4 million and $5 million by the end of the year, WCA Hospital Thursday announced it would have to lay off some employees.

The announcement by hospital president and CEO Mark Celmer came after a special meeting of the board of directors.

Earlier in the week Celmer said WCA was asking some employees to take unpaid personal leave time. In addition, the hospital closed a long-term care wing and transferred 20 patients to another part of the facility. Celmer said 33 employees were transferred with those patients.

"Reluctantly, I must say that layoffs are inevitable," Celmer said.

With a combined total of 1,600 full- and part-time employees, WCA is the largest employer in Chautauqua County. None of those workers are organized under a union for collective bargaining.

Celmer would not say how many workers would be laid off, or on what timetable. But he said "that will be disclosed to our employees before it goes to the media and the public."

Celmer and WCA board treasurer Jay Churchill outlined a workplace redesign plan that calls for seeking economies through joint ventures and joint operating companies, expanding services to meet the community's needs, focusing on growth in outpatient services, and redesigning all areas based on current trends in patient volumes.

Churchill said WCA is working to restructure both its long-term and short-term debt.

"The hospital has had almost $13 million in long-term debt that was already on the books," he said. "That is a relatively low debt ratio, but what we are trying to do is to repackage that into a better deal."

He also said WCA has borrowed an additional $2 million as part of the refinancing plan.

WCA had a drop of 300 inpatients in July and August. Celmer said that change in the census has meant a $1.2 million loss in reimbursement alone.

Stressing WCA still has 92 percent of the market share of all hospital patients, Celmer said the drop in the caseload is a "mixed blessing" for the community.

"It does not bode well for those whose livelihoods are based upon taking care of inpatients," Celmer said, "but we have no sense that patients are leaving here and going elsewhere. The reality is that we have added primary care physicians, outpatient programs, and testing programs to keep people healthy so they are using hospitals less and less."

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