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Atrius lays off dozens of nurses as COVID needs wane and merger nears

Medical group says it’s paring back COVID call center but nurses union warns of cost-cutting ahead of a planned acquisition

Atrius Health CEO Steven Strongwater (second from right) took part in a 2019 meeting of the state Health Policy Commission. Atrius this week laid off dozens of nurses ahead of a planned acquisition by health giant Optum.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

As the attorney general reviews plans for Atrius Health to be acquired by health care company Optum, the statewide doctor group has announced sizable layoffs.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association said that 60 nurses — approximately 10 percent of Atrius’s nursing staff — were let go on Wednesday. Most of the employees worked for a special call center set up during the COVID pandemic. Atrius, however, put the number of nurses let go at 58, but added that 14 non-nurse positions were also eliminated.

“Atrius is prioritizing money over their hardworking, dedicated frontline nurses that volunteered to leave their jobs and help our patients and practices during the two years of the pandemic,” said Jessi ZuHone, an Atrius nurse and secretary of the nurses’ local bargaining unit with the Massachusetts Nurses Association. “These nurses dealt with multiple surges, protocol changes, CDC guideline updates and countless overtime hours to then be told ‘see ya.’ It’s disgraceful and atrocious the way these nurses are being treated.”

Atrius said it was winding down its centralized COVID Resource Center as demand for COVID services dwindled, and would be integrating that work into primary care departments. In total, 72 individuals were affected, the organization said.


“We are also reengineering our central support services and eliminating certain positions in these areas to better direct our resources to clinical frontline care,” said Dr. Steven Strongwater, president and CEO of Atrius Health, in a statement. “Atrius Health is working to support affected nurses to return to open clinical positions within the practice wherever possible. These redesigns are unrelated to our plans to join Optum as Atrius Health continually looks for ways to improve how we meet the comprehensive needs of our patients.”

Optum referred comment to Atrius.

In a statement, the MNA said far more nurses were being laid off than were being offered positions elsewhere in the organization.


Bridget Walsh, chair of the bargaining unit at the physician group and one of the affected nurses, said the organization asked nurses to volunteer for the COVID call center at the start of the pandemic. At the time, the nurses were promised they would have jobs once the pandemic ended, and the call center would be used for health care needs beyond COVID. Though Atrius hired some new employees for the call center, the majority of the staff worked at Atrius prior to the pandemic, Walsh said.

Yet on Wednesday, Walsh said, executives told nurses in a Zoom call announcing the layoffs that Atrius is $85 million in debt, and had to be fiscally responsible as its merger with Optum nears. She said 32 nurses from the call center were being let go, in addition to 24 case managers, three employee health nurses, and one nurse practitioner in clinical coverage. It made her and her colleagues feel disposable.

“Nurses worked 80 hours a week, tirelessly, to meet the needs of the organization,” Walsh said. “We’re sad, angry, upset. But when it boils down to it, nurses are here for patients. When you put finances before health care, it’s the patient that is going to suffer.”

Atrius employs 1,000 clinicians within four medical groups — Harvard Vanguard, Dedham Medical Associates, Granite Medical Group, and PMG Physician Associates — as well as several visiting nurse associations.

The layoffs come as Optum, the provider arm of for-profit UnitedHealth Group and the nation’s largest employer of primary-care physicians, works to acquire Atrius Health, which is Massachusetts’ largest independent doctor group. Since the organizations signed an acquisition agreement a year ago, Attorney General Maura Healey’s office has been reviewing the plans to allow Atrius to shift from a nonprofit to for-profit entity, including deciding fair-market value of Atrius’s charitable assets.


A spokesman for the attorney general said the transaction was still under review. If approved, the acquisition will strengthen Optum’s foothold in the region, after Optum’s subsidiary CCH acquired Worcester-based Reliant Medical Group in 2017.

The MNA said the layoffs are a signal of Atrius’s new priorities

“(Nurses) are also concerned about the mission of the organization as Atrius moves from a not-for-profit model to a for-profit system ... which the nurses fear signals a move away from a focus on patient care towards a focus on boosting corporate profit margins,” the union said in a statement.

Jessica Bartlett can be reached at Follow her @ByJessBartlett.