Tuesday afternoon the V.I. Legislature announced a special session Wednesday to discuss ongoing management and financial crises at Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix, canceling the session hours later at the request of several senators who initially called for it, due to developing events at the hospital.
The past week has been full of major developments, conflicts and drama at JFL. The hospital’s interim chief executive officer, Dr. Kendall Griffith, resigned July 7, citing conflicts with his private practice. Several senators met with Griffith and issued statements saying the Legislature will intervene and legislatively select Griffith to run the public hospital and disband its governing board.
Governing Board Chairwoman Kye Walker resigned the chairmanship and the board voted to reinstate Griffith during an emergency meeting Monday.
But Griffith said he may or may not take the position, after discussing it with family and depending on "further discussion with the board, regarding certain things I need."
Walker and board member Imelda Dizon resigned from the board altogether Tuesday.
These most recent events mark the intensification of a financial and managerial crisis at the hospital that goes back a number of years.
The hospital declared a financial emergency in 2011 (See related links below) and hired former CEO Jeff Nelson, a specialist in turning around financially troubled hospitals 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 some senators, including Sen. Alicia "Chucky" 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, due largely to poor economic conditions and the closure of the Hovensa refinery.
Currently the hospital is facing a serious cash crisis and owes millions to its suppliers who are moving more and more to a cash-in-advance basis.
Sens. Kenneth Gittens, Sammuel Sanes, Diane Capehart and Hansen visited Griffith at the hospital on Thursday, four days after Griffith tendered his resignation as CEO. Afterward this visit, several of the senators said the Legislature would meet in session next week to address the situation with the hospital, with Hansen and others taking the position that the Legislature should mandate that retired members of the hospital board leave, and legislatively reinstate Griffith, giving him expanded authority relative to the board.
In the wake of the hospital board’s decision to reinstate Griffith and its chairwoman Walker’s abdication of the chair, Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone said he felt the reasons for the session had been addressed, so on Monday he said there would not be a session.
Malone later said he had the cart before the horse, procedurally, because senators had filed a petition to call a session, rather than himself as president of the body.
"I was really not authorized to say there would be no session because only the petitioners who called for it can say it," Malone said.
"I got a call from some of the senators saying they are working out something with the administration, a compromise was made, so session was no longer warranted," Malone said. He told the petitioners to send a letter with signatures of those rescinding the request for a session, which he received around 7 p.m. He then canceled the session, he said.
"I am glad we were able to work this out without going into session. I always believed it could be handled better administratively," Malone said.
According to Malone, discussions between hospital board members, staff, senators and Gov. John deJongh Jr. led to an agreement whereby Walker and Dizon would resign the board. DeJongh would appoint new members to replace them on an interim basis, and send new permanent nominees in the fall.
"This made the reinstatement of Dr. Griffith possible, because his only condition for returning was that new members of the board be appointed," he said.
A text message for Griffith sent around 8 p.m. Tuesday asking if he had agreed to return to the post of CEO had not been returned as of 11 p.m. Tuesday.
Reached by phone late Tuesday evening, Government House spokesman Jean Greaux confirmed the discussions had occurred, but said he did not have enough information on hand to immediately confirm the specific details of the plan described by Malone.
"The governor’s position was that a special session was not in the interest of the hospital board members, the hospital or even to the joint legislative and executive approach to the challenges facing the hospital – primarily its financial challenges," Greaux said. "That is the theme that reverberated through the meeting."
In a statement announcing Walker’s and Dizon’s resignations, deJongh briefly discussed his meeting with the senators.
“The senators and I both expressed our individual concerns about the challenges facing the hospital on St. Croix. I am pleased that we had the opportunity to engage in a frank discussion about both short and long-term solutions with the most immediate being the stabilization of the territorial hospital system,” deJongh said.
Despite the noise and conflict, Walker and Griffith have both repeatedly emphasized that the hospital’s fiscal situation is their highest priority, as have senators, including Hansen and Malone, and Government House.
"Ultimately the common goal between senators and the executive branch is ensuring the long-term sustainability of the hospital and addressing the deep financial problems affecting the hospital on St. Croix. I don’t think there is any question in anyone’s minds that those are the key objectives," Greaux said Tuesday.
While Wednesday’s session has been canceled, Malone said the Senate would meet in committee of the whole fairly soon to try to help the hospital.
"I am interested in seeing a financial plan for the hospital so we don’t find ourselves in this situation over and over again," Malone said.