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After announcing earlier this month that it would be shutting down its three childcare centers at Inova Fair Oaks, Inova Fairfax and Inova Mount Vernon hospitals, Inova Health Systems has now changed its mind and will petition the county and an outside agency for help in an effort to keep them open.

“We originally started analyzing this issue because we had so few employees that were using the centers,” said Angie Mannino, senior vice president of human resources for Inova Health System. “We have nearly 16,000 employees and only one percent were using them.”

Mannino said Inova, which has a net operating income of $216 million, had to subsidize its childcare program last year by about $1 million because tuitions did not cover the total costs.

“But this really is not about the cost,” she added. “We didn’t look at this and say this is cost-prohibitive and we can’t do this anymore. We looked at it more as an equity issue. We said if we are going to provide this benefit, we want lots of employees to participate in it. That was more our consideration. We basically realized that we had two major barriers keeping us from moving forward and we started questioning why we were providing this benefit with these barriers in place. ”

Mannino said the first of these two barriers is that the Inova childcare centers use a “flexible scheduling” system in which employees can reserve as much time as they think they will use, but only pay for what they actually use.

Sharon R. Veatch, executive director of advocacy group Child Care Aware of Virginia, said flexible scheduling is provided by many medical employers in Virginia, but that it is expensive and often subsidized by the medical or hospital system employers. “Many find they have to do that in order to provide it as a benefit for their workers,” she said.

Mannino said Inova began providing it as a recruitment incentive when the hospital system was in dire need of nurses more than a decade ago.

“The flexible scheduling was something that Inova started offering about 15 years ago when we had nursing shortages so that we could call employees back to work whenever we needed them, but now what happens is that if someone reserves the whole week and then only use one or two days, we still have to schedule childcare staff for that whole week, and we can’t give away that unused time slot to someone else, because it is being held as a reservation.”

Mannino said that this type of flexible scheduling results in very inefficient use of the childcare services.

“Because of this type of scheduling, we found that only about thirty percent of the people who want to use this service are able to use it. Meanwhile, we have a waiting list of about 450 people who want to use it, but can’t,” she said. “When we told some parents that we may have to stop our flexible scheduling and revert back to a more traditional childcare scheduling approach, many parents said they would stop using the service altogether.”

Inova then began exploring the possibility of partnering with an outside childcare service, but found that another obstacle prevented them from doing so. Due to an agreement with Fairfax County, Inova is not allowed to offer childcare services to anyone not employed within the company.

“Yes, that is true. Inova’s proffers with the county limit the centers to offering care only to employees and not to the general public,” agreed Fairfax County Government spokesperson Brian Worthy.

“Every childcare partner that we explored a relationship with said that they had to have access to the community as a backup in case Inova’s employee base couldn’t support the center. It was at that point that we started having really big doubts about moving forward and decided to announce that we would be closing the centers.”

But following that announcement, Inova began receiving negative feedback from its employees about that decision, and has now offered to approach the issue once again in hope of another alternative.

“We hope to make it work. We are addressing the flexible scheduling issue and talking with the county to see if we can work around the proffers issue. If we can come to an agreement on both of these fronts, we will start looking at partnering with an outside agency to keep our childcare centers going,” Mannino said. “We have told our employees that our programs will remain open through August and we hope to seamlessly have a new system in place by the beginning of the next school year.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com