For Drexel staffers in school, Hahnemann closure may mean dropping out

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Diana Alvarez with her children (photo provided)

Diana Alvarez with her children (photo provided)

Most nights after her boys go to sleep, Diana Alvarez sits down at her dining room table, opens up her computer, and does her homework. Alvarez, 39, is a single mother of three living in Northeast Philadelphia. She moved here two years ago from the Bronx, where she felt the crime was too intense to raise her kids. She had some family in Philly, and they persuaded her to move down.

She got a job at Drexel University’s College of Medicine as an administrative assistant in the rheumatology division, where she works full-time today. Soon after, she enrolled in school, tuition-free. She’s working toward her bachelor’s degree in general studies, with a minor in criminal justice.

As a Drexel employee, Alvarez is eligible for the university’s tuition remission program. Her kids would be able to attend undergrad there, too, tuition-free, as long as she is employed.

But since Alvarez got word of Hahnemann Hospital’s closure, everything about her future has seemed less clear. Hahnemann was Drexel’s main teaching hospital, and last week employees of Drexel University Physicians practices received an email from Drexel president John Fry that only 60% of them would be offered jobs by Tower Health, the proposed new academic partner for the College of Medicine.

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Alvarez said she doesn’t know yet what will happen to her job, and described the overall mood at the clinic where she works as panic. She said she has been most upset by the lack of clear communication from the administration. She can’t afford to walk into work one day and find out she’s out of a job and will lose benefits for her kids.

“You bump into someone in the hallway and ask, ‘Hey, what have you heard today?’ ” said Alvarez. “It’s a lot of rumors.”

When Hahnemann’s owners announced in late June that the 496-bed safety-net hospital would be shutting its doors, the future of more than 2,500 employees and 500 doctors in training were cast into uncertainty. Fry’s announcement last week upped the tally of job losses. And unless exceptions are made, losing a job with Drexel means losing eligibility for free tuition there, even if an employee moves to a position with Tower Health.

The proposal to move Hahnemann’s teaching operations to Tower Health, which has six hospitals in the Philadelphia area and Reading, still needs to be given the green light in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Last week, Judge Kevin Gross approved the first step of the process, which allows Tower and other health systems to bid on the residency programs.

There are about 800 faculty and clinical staff employed by Drexel University Physicians, meaning roughly 320 will be laid off. But even those who are offered positions with Tower Health may not be able to take them, or want to take them.

Rheumatology is one of the divisions that Tower has expressed interest in absorbing, but the doctors haven’t made a decision about whether they want to continue on with Tower.  For administrative staffers like Alvarez, their jobs are subject to the interests of the doctors in their division.

“If my providers currently are not interested, and they decided they don’t wish to stay, I don’t have a division to support,” said Alvarez, referring to the doctors in the rheumatology department.  “If I don’t have a division to support, there’s no need for me.”

Even if her division did transfer to Tower, Alvarez said, she wouldn’t be able to commute to Reading, or even Chestnut Hill. Her kids are in school in Philly, and they love it here. She relies on public transportation and doesn’t have a car.

When Alvarez found out that Hahnemann was closing, she said, she reached out to Drexel’s main campus to see if she could apply for an administrative job there, so she could avoid thinking about relocating and stay enrolled in her classes for free. But she said she was told there was a hiring freeze.

When asked about that Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Drexel University told WHYY, “While Drexel is more selective of what positions the university is recruiting for, the university doesn’t currently have a hiring freeze.”

Currently, there are 13 posted job openings at the Drexel College of Medicine, and 59 at the main Drexel campus. A total of 10 open positions do not require a bachelor’s degree.

The university’s spokeswoman would not say how many people employed by Drexel University Physicians were currently taking advantage of the tuition remission program for themselves or their families.

“We are still sorting through this and don’t have more information available at this time,” Niki Gianakaris, Drexel’s executive director of media relations, wrote in an email.

Based on the terms of the tuition remission program posted on the university’s website, employees “involuntarily terminated from employment due to layoff or other reduction-in-force” will continue to receive tuition remission until the end of the current academic term. After that, they would have to pay, which Alvarez said she would not be able to afford.

Alvarez said she heard the administration was considering grandfathering in those who, like her, are enrolled in classes for free at Drexel if they move on to Tower. But at this point, like so much else, it’s just a rumor.

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