What the City's Furloughs Mean for Health Care: Don't Get Sick

Categories: Health, Politics
Dr. No.jpg
As in, 'Dr. No, He's Not In; He's Furloughed.'
Mayor Gavin Newsom's pending deal with unions to give workers 12 yearly unpaid days off could mean reduced staffing for everything from guarding swimming pools to issuing marriage certificates. But the effect might be most obvious at city-run clinics, where new patients had already been waiting nearly a month for appointments.

"We're still going to open the same hours," said Health Department spokeswoman Eileen Shields. "We're still going to have the same services. We'll be doing the best we can with what we have, and we'll see how it works out. [But] it's true if you have fewer people working fewer days, you're going to be seeing fewer people."


SF Weekly reported last week that in 2009 waits for first-time appointments at city clinics ballooned from 18 to 29 days. This was likely due to an expansion of the clinic-dependent Healthy San Francisco universal health care plan, and a glum economy driving more people into eligibility to seek free medical attention. That trend seemed to reverse somewhat this year, with waits down to 25 days in February.

But the mayor's public gamesmanship with city unions -- 15,000 city workers in March received layoff notices with the understanding that many would be rehired at 37.5 hours per week -- seems to inspired panic among those mistakenly believing some patients would lose medical care altogether.

James Keys, chairman of the Mental Health Board of San Francisco received a call from a patient whose city-paid psychiatrist interpreted a layoff notice as meaning he could no longer see patients.

The patient "called me in a panic, beucase this person didn't know where they were going to get services from," said Keys. "What about medication? What about when something occurs during the day they weren't able to deal with? A lot of those people were also on Healthy San Francisco -- what does this say about what's going on in Healthy San Francisco?"

It turns out, however, that the doc won't really be laid off. Whether it was the mayor's grand design or just a happy outcome, the shrink -- and thousands of other workers -- will merely be furloughed.

And in a best-case scenario, the recession-inspired fear and loathing afflicting the rest of us will inspire city health workers to toil that much harder so that patients don't notice they're gone an extra day each month.

"There's a point at which there's a spirit of joining in, it's hard times, and more is expected of us," said Shields. "A lot of people are losing their jobs. A lot of people are under stress. ... You look around, and you see what's going on around you. And people come up with ways to make themselves feel as though they can do the best they can under the circumstances."

But medication would help.

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