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The Center for Hospice and Palliative Care plans to temporarily lay off as many as 40 employees next year as it embarks on a major renovation of the inpatient unit at its Cheektowaga campus.

The $8 million project involves renovation of 22 short-stay patient rooms, as well as upgrades to the kitchen and heating and air conditioning, relocation of a chapel, and construction of a new patient-ambulance entrance.

During the renovation, the organization on Como Park Boulevard will use its 10-bed longer-term residence for the more frequent short-stay patients. The inpatient unit serves patients whose pain or symptoms cannot be managed at home.

A similar conversion was completed this year at the St. John Baptist/Hospice Buffalo Inpatient Unit on Maple Street by the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. It was converted from a residence to a shorter-term inpatient unit, allowing it to care for more patients per year.

Flint Besecker, chief executive officer, said the changes reflect the need for more acute-care beds for patients approaching the end of their lives who need symptom relief, who can no longer be managed at home or whose families want to use the facility for short-term respite care. In addition, he said, the organization wants to give the unit a more homelike atmosphere.

“It’s part of a strategy we embarked on to try to reach more people in the community earlier in their disease,” he said.

The change means the five remaining patients in the 10-bed Cheektowaga residence, where the average length of stay is about three months, will have to be transferred to a nursing home when the residence is used for short-stay patients during the project.

Besecker said the center plans to shut the residence early next year and is making arrangements for the remaining patients. Although a sensitive issue, it’s possible that some of the patients may die before they have to move.

“It is a difficult situation. We are planning to transition them [to other facilities] and trying to do it as respectfully as possible,” he said.

The decision didn’t sit well with every family member of the patients affected.

Michael Simpson, whose 75-year-old mother, Rose, is a patient at the longer-care residence, said he is unhappy about the prospect of moving her elsewhere when she is near death.

“The staff here is brilliant. It’s an incredible experience,” he said. “But I feel as though we are being pushed out.”

Besecker said he is aware of the complaint, and his staff is trying to accommodate the family as best as possible. However, at some reasonable point, he said the unit must be emptied to allow construction to start.

As a result of the projects at the Cheektowaga and downtown facilities, notices went to 84 of the center’s 650 employees that they may be displaced in some way during the project, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2013, Besecker said. As many as 40 could face a temporary layoff, he said.

Besecker also said the center increased its workforce over the past two years by 70 people.

Besecker said it’s unclear whether the center will return to using the 10-bed residence for longer-term patients after the renovation to the inpatient unit. He said nursing homes provide a similar service and may be better suited to care for those types of patients in a partnership with hospice.

The residence on the campus has cared for about 45 patients a year, and the inpatient unit about 1,500 patients a year. Overall, the organization cares for 8,000 people annually, with about 6,500 of them off the campus in homes, hospitals or nursing homes.

“Our strategy is to take our clinical expertise and use it in the community,” Besecker said. “Then you don’t need all these [patient] handoffs.”

“It’s very difficult for patients and families to take full advantage of the range of services hospice offers when they are under care for only a few days. We must be careful about focusing too intently on long-stay patients while turning a blind eye to the large number of patients dying in less than a week,” said J. Donald Schumacher, president of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. He is a Buffalo native who formerly headed the hospice organization here.

email: hdavis@buffnews.com