Responding to senators’ calls to dissolve the hospital board and reinstate Dr. Kendall Griffith as CEO, the Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital Governing Board voted to reinstate Griffith during a short emergency meeting Monday.
But Griffith said he does not know if he will accept the position. In addition, Sen. Alicia Hansen is still calling for the Senate to legislatively remove all members with expired terms from the board, despite the chronic shortage of volunteers for the many similarly constructed governing boards in the territory.
Meanwhile, Griffith and board members both said getting more funding for the hospital is more important than these personnel and political matters.
The hospital’s governing board hired previous CEO Jeff Nelson, a specialist in turning around financially troubled hospitals, in 2011, on a three-year contract, with the express intention of having him take unpopular measures to turn the hospital around.
When Nelson laid off 85 licensed vocational nurses and certified nurses aides, with the goal of saving money and moving toward a better qualified nursing staff, some hospital staff, along with local talk radio shows and Hansen, began demanding Nelson’s ouster.
Nelson resigned in January of this year, saying in his letter that he was asked to step down. The board then selected Griffith, a cardiologist who headed the V.I. Cardiac Center, as interim CEO.
Since that time, the financial situation at the hospital deteriorated further and Griffith laid off 24 more employees in April – most of whom were graduate nurses who had not passed their board exams but had been working as nursing staff, according to hospital officials.
After several months with small profits last year, the hospital slid into ever increasing cash shortfalls this year.
Griffith resigned July 7, citing the difficulty of maintaining his active medical practice while also managing the hospital.
Sens. Kenneth Gittens, Sammuel Sanes, Diane Capehart and Hansen visited Griffith at the hospital July 11. Afterwards, several of the senators said the Legislature would meet in session next week to address the situation with the hospital.
Hansen at that time publicly stated she wanted all members of the board whose terms have expired to resign and Griffith reinstated.
At the outset of Monday’s meeting, Board Chairwoman Kye Walker read a statement saying that the board had been warning of impending financial catastrophe for several years, but the Legislature never called a special session to address the hospital’s problems, instead waiting to intervene in a specific personnel decision.
"On March, 2011, JFL declared a financial emergency. Since that time and up to day, JFL has maintained that it needs a capital infusion of $10 million. No one responded, no one sought to identify additional funds, and most importantly, members of that Legislature did not call a Special Session," Walker read, going on to list a series of financial crises at the hospital since that time that did not result in a special session.
"If it takes rallying behind one person to get members of the Legislature to act to identify funds to save this hospital, then I will not stand in the way. I will therefore step down as chair of this board at the end of this meeting," Walker said.
The board very briefly discussed the question, noting that some employees had filed a petition to reinstate Griffith. The Source requested a copy of the petition, and the board emailed a half-page of signatures, with 31 or 32 employee signatures on a single sheet of paper with spaces for 64 signatures, in response.
The Legislature’s post audit of the hospital’s 2013 budget lists 581 filled positions at the hospital.
The board then passed a motion, from member Imelda Dizon, to formally reinstate Griffith, with Walker and member Wallace Phaire voting no.
Asked if that meant Griffith was CEO from that moment forward, Walker referred questions to Board Vice Chairman Anthony Ricketts, saying she was no longer chairwoman. Ricketts said he was not certain and it would have to be clarified through discussion with Griffith.
"I really need to discuss with my family if I continue or not," Griffith said, when asked Monday evening if he would agree to take the CEO position in light of the board’s vote. "I need to have further discussion with the board, regarding certain things I need," he added.
He did not go into specifics, but did say he felt the board "micromanaged" him, making it harder to run the hospital.
Griffith also said he felt recent Source coverage by this writer unfairly portrayed him in an unflattering light by quoting hospital employees who are critical of him.
"The article created a picture of me that is completely false," Griffith said, going on to deny several of the specific claims his critics at the hospital made on the record to the Source.
"I never created a hostile working environment," he said, disputing the contents of a complaint letter signed by three hospital staff members and the on-the-record statements of other hospital staff who described it as a "poisonous atmosphere."
Responding to Chief Financial Officer Deepak Bansal’s complaint that Griffith’s wife engaged in "bullying type of tactic(s)" demanding that Griffith’s pay be "corrected," Griffith said he was not present, but was told the conversation was civil. He also said his concern was that he had not received any payment for his work as CEO, but only his regular $150,000 salary as a cardiologist and the head of the V.I. Cardiac Center at the hospital.
Griffith confirmed he was out of the territory for four weeks since taking the CEO position in late January. While a hospital board employee told the Source Griffith was in Utah, in fact he went to North Dakota for professional development, he said. It is important that he continue to hone his skills by working in a high volume environment, Griffith said.
Asked if such an absence interfered with his ability to manage the hospital’s day-to-day operations as CEO, Griffith did not directly answer, but said the board knew of his plans before and after he took up the CEO position, and the travel was important to keep up the level of patient care.
Ultimately, getting more funding for the hospital was more important than who is CEO, Griffith said.
"I never wanted any drama. I just want a functioning hospital," he said.
Hansen arrived shortly after the hospital board meeting ended. Upon hearing that Walker had resigned from her position as chair and the board had reinstated Griffith, Hansen said it was not enough. She said the entire board, with the exception of Ricketts, would have had to resign, and the Senate would be meeting Wednesday in session, with the intention of removing all the members who have expired terms, with whom Hansen disagrees.
Hansen delved deep into the internal politics of the board, saying she wanted the Legislature to pass legislation abolishing the current board because she disagrees with some of the board’s individual decisions.
"They are making decisions that are detrimental to the board without having standing on the board. So a change of chairmanship is not going to stop us from going into session to straighten that up," Hansen said.
Asked if the Legislature should directly intervene in individual hospital board decisions, Hansen said "this confusion and micromanaging the CEO cannot work," insisting that this CEO should be given a free hand to run hospital affairs. Her position on the role of CEOs versus the board was somewhat different prior to January, during the tenure of Griffith’s predecessor, Jeff Nelson, whom she vigorously opposed.
She said Gov. John deJongh Jr. had asked her to come up with a list of people willing to volunteer to be board members and she promised to do so.
The Source asked Hansen if it would be micromanagement for elected officials such as senators to directly intervene in internal hospital personnel decision such as who is CEO, or to restructure the board because a senator disagreed with specific board decisions.
"No," Hansen said. "Remember it was the Legislature created all of it, and the Legislature can change it at will."
Asked if she knew of any precedent for any legislature in the United States to mandate who is CEO of a public hospital and make the specific hiring decision, Hansen said, "what I am aware of is once you create a law you can change a law."
Asked if a personnel hiring decision at a hospital qualified as legislation, Hansen replied:
"No, the title, because you cannot put the name in the law, I found a way to creatively to make sure that the person that we think are in place because it was not us who chose him as the interim CEO. It was not us, it was the board who asked him, who used him as an interim person but knowing as a front to fire employees. The fact that when we see, this is our people, this is our hospital, when we see a problem that cannot be resolved then we need to resolve it."
According to Hansen, 10 senators agreed on the need for a special session, which will be held Wednesday at 9 a.m. However, the revised Senate calendar posted Monday lists a Finance Committee hearing that day. Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone replied late Monday night to an email asking him to confirm whether or not there would be a senate session scheduled for any day this week. In a brief email, he simply said, "no."