WATSONVILLE -- Dozens of workers and their supporters gathered outside Salud Para La Gente's headquarters on Aviation Way for a candlelight vigil Monday as the nonprofit health agency's board of directors met to discuss service cuts and layoffs.
Inside, dozens more crowded a hallway and reception area adjacent to the conference room where the board met.
Salud is grappling with what leaders say is a $200,000 monthly shortfall due to changes in Medi-Cal reimbursements for services to seniors and for adult dental care. The board is considering eliminating Elderday, which provides medical treatment, meals and therapy to more than 80 seniors each weekday at a facility in Santa Cruz, and slashing services and staff in Salud's dental department.
But the board postponed a decision as workers, community members and government officials lined up to speak in support of the programs.
Dentist Iris Haro said she didn't understand how Salud found itself in this position. Leaders have known about the state funding problem since 2009. Now, she said, front-line staff are paying for "mismanagement."
"We want you to listen to your employees and your community," she said.
Councilman Daniel Dodge called Elderday a "lifesaver," and the dental clinic "the access to dental care in our community."
Petra Liliane Rensi, a member of the Elderday staff, talked of her elderly and frail patients and pleaded with the board to save the center.
"Every single one of the staff, we know their stories," she said. "Sure, we're concerned about our jobs, but we'll figure it out. They can't work it out. We need to think of them."
Matt Nathanson is regional vice president for Service Employees International Union Local 521, which represents 160 Salud workers. In 2014, he said, when federal health care reform kicks in, Salud will be desperate to find staff to serve an anticipated increase in Medi-Cal patients.
"It's crazy to let go of trained health care professionals now," Nathanson said.
Giang Nguyen, Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency director, advised the board to establish a committee of stakeholders to help find solutions.
"We want to partner with Dr. (Zettie) Page, (the chief executive officer), with all of you, to look at the issue together," she said.
Outside, the crowd kept vigil, standing in the dark parking lot beneath the conference room windows. Vanessa Munoz, a medical assistant, suggested furloughs as a possible solution instead of layoffs.
Dental assistant Mariela Mendoza Rodriguez said she's worried about losing a job she's held at Salud for the past five years.
"I am stressed and kind of sad because I love my job," she said.
Follow Sentinel reporter Donna Jones on Twitter at Twitter.com/DonnaJonesSCS