Hospice Program in Oswego County May Close

By Steve Yablonski

Nursing shortage cited as main cause

Legislator James Karasek, chairman of Oswego County’s health committee. “[Hospice] will be closed if we don’t find nurses,” he says.

Facing a dwindling supply of qualified nurses, Oswego County’s hospice program may not survive this year. 

In June, the Oswego County Legislature notified the state, that unless it was otherwise required to continue, it would end its hospice services at the end of 2022.

The county has submitted to the state a closure plan, according to Legislator James Karasek, chairman of the county’s health committee.

“It will be closed if we don’t find nurses,” he added. “We can’t find anyone who will even apply. This isn’t just a county problem. This is an issue across the country.”

“It is what it is. We are working on wage restructure for a lot of issues. This is not a negative comment—I want to make it clear—you can’t pull a piece out of the union contract and say, ‘we are going to pay these people this much more, but we are not going to pay everybody that same increase.’  So nurses [who specialize in hospice care] are leaving our county and going to jobs where they are starting at $20 an hour more than what they make at the county,” Karasek said.

Nurses all over are doing that, it’s not just in Oswego County, he pointed out.

There are hospitals that are flush with grant monies, state money and they are able to pay these wages. And they just bill the insurance companies, he said.

“We can’t do that,” he explained.

The health department has too few hospice-trained nurses to ensure proper patient care and prevent burnout of the remaining nurses in the program. Using nurses from other areas is not an option as they lack the required training in hospice care and it would also result in shortages in other areas, he explained, adding, that recruitment efforts have not been successful.

“I happened to run into a former county nurse and I said, ‘I really miss you; you did a hell of a job.’ She wasn’t even a hospice nurse. She was in another program.  She said, ‘Jim, they called me up and said they’d pay me 20 bucks more an hour to start.’  How are we going to compete against that? That’s what’s going on at DSS, also. Counties that have money—Onondaga County for example—they’ve got so much money that they put out a poll to ask people what they should spend it on.

“We have had people who come to us, they get their training, they get their certificates to do their job and the next thing you know they are transferring to some county that’s paying them $5 more an hour than what we’re paying them,” Karasek said.

Competition for nurses is intense nationwide. Better pay and benefits is an issue.

“So now we are short-staffed and how do you fill it? We do have a task force that was just put together for looking at wages, and what can we do to help solve the problem? You know, short of raising the hell out of taxes,” he said. “The number of the program’s patients has been reduced, which negatively impacts revenue— revenue will not meet the cost of operation.”

Currently, other county nurses are assisting with the five people in the hospice program.

“We do not surrender those patients. We are open until they are gone and then we have what they call a grief counseling program; that goes on for like 12 months so we have time. CNY Hospice is picking up our new patients right now. So there is a hospice program. Friends of Hospice, they are still around still functioning. They’re not going away. Everybody’s being served,” Karasek said.

Hopefully, the county can find a way in this next year to find a way to recruit some nurses and save the county’s award-winning hospice program, he said, adding, “It’s one of the top programs of the country.  It’s worth saving.”

Friends of Oswego County Hospice will continue

Although a nursing shortage may force Oswego County Hospice to possibly discontinue operation, the Friends of Oswego County Hospice will continue to support hospice patients in the county, regardless of the future of OCH, Elena Twiss, executive director of FOCH said in June.

“We are not closing, in spite of what may happen to the county program,” Twiss said. “Moving forward, the Friends of Oswego County Hospice is dedicated to helping enhance the time that Oswego County patients and their families have together by providing financial assistance and nonmedical support. We want the county hospice program to continue, but in the event that it is unable to, we—as a separate, independent, nonprofit organization—will continue to operate and assist patients in Oswego County through whatever organizations are providing services.”

For additional information, visit www.friendsofhospice.org or call 315-343-5223.