INDIANA REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER  IRMC  sign

Indiana Regional Medical Center is among 31 Pennsylvania hospitals that will share $324 million in emergency state loans to help support them during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wolf administration said Thursday.

IRMC is getting a $10 million bridge loan from the state’s Hospital Emergency Loan Program (HELP), to tide it over until federal aid is provided later this year.

But at the same time IRMC announced the furlough of 200 employees in an effort to adjust staffing levels to match the current demand.

“With (patient) volumes at less than 50 percent due to government regulations, there is no cash coming in to pay bills,” IRMC Chief Financial Officer Robert Gongaware said.

HELP is providing hospitals with short-term, low-interest aid diverted from unused funds originally set aside for water and sewer infrastructure projects by the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, or PennVEST.

“It will be used for operational expenses,” Gongaware said. “Payroll and purchasing supplies, drugs and implants for patients that are typically covered by claims paid from patient insurances including Medical Assistance.”

Many hospitals have already furloughed or laid off employees during the past month due to the impact of COVID-19, which has inhibited some people from seeking medical care.

“The ultimate irony is that because of this global health care crisis, our normal daily operations have slowed significantly,” IRMC President and CEO Steve Wolfe said. “We’ve seen significant declines in both the volume of outpatient and inpatient regular hospital and emergency room visits as a direct result of the pandemic.”

The changes go into effect immediately and are anticipated to last through May 31. IRMC said furloughed employees will continue to receive health care benefits but will not accrue additional benefits such as paid time off while on furlough.

Also, there has been a reduction of one administrative position, and the hospital said administrative team members have taken voluntary pay cuts to help offset the deficits.

“This was one of the most difficult decisions we’ve had to make in many years,” Wolfe said. “But we have to make changes in order to sustain operations and remain an independent health care provider in this current environment.”

As IRMC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bruce Bush added, “It is important to remember that bypassing regular health care is still not advisable. IRMC has followed (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and (Pennsylvania) Department of Health guidelines to the letter, and we are still ready and prepared to serve the community — no matter what your health care needs might be.”

Since stay-at-home restrictions took effect in mid-March, IRMC has experienced significant declines in services, including:

• A 48 percent decrease in admissions

• A 59 percent decrease in outpatient testing

• A 58 percent decrease in surgeries

The furlough also affects an ongoing and still-unresolved labor dispute involving the Indiana Registered Nurses Association or IRNA-PSEA (Pennsylvania State Education Association).

In their news release Thursday, IRMC officials wrote, “Given the impact that the COVID-19 crisis has had on IRMC’s business, IRMC has also withdrawn its amended Last, Best and Final Offer to IRNA-PSEA dated February 18, 2019, to evaluate the recovery of volumes and assess the extent of Government relief funding initiatives.”

Union officials could not be reached for comment overnight.

The hospital also said telemedicine has been introduced locally for primary care, UrgiCare and some other specialties in an effort to meet the needs of the community.

Meanwhile, the HELP loan meant to help IRMC meet needs in the short term isn’t the largest one in the area. ACMH Hospital, formerly known as Armstrong County Memorial Hospital, is getting a $12 million HELP loan.

Other hospitals in Pennsylvania received loans ranging from $100 million for the Geisinger hospitals in seven eastern counties to $1 million for Tyrone Hospital in Blair County.

All those loans will have to be repaid come September, after hospitals receive federal aid authorized in the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed by President Trump on March 27, 2020.

Health care facilities licensed as hospitals by the Pennsylvania Department of Health under the Health Care Facilities Act of 1979 that are eligible to receive federal grant funding through the CARES Act also are eligible for HELP.

State Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, who serves on the PennVEST board, said that agency authorized the use of $450 million on April 10 to support the emergency loan program.

“HELP funding is a lifeline that does not ease the long-term fiscal distress of those institutions,” Pittman said. “Until they can resume standard operations, they will continue to be in a dire financial situation where tough choices will need to be made in order for them to survive as community hospitals.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.