The hospital board became embroiled in controversy late last year following an unpopular decision to push out the hospital’s team of emergency room doctors called Haywood Emergency Physicians. A national physician staffing firm was hired instead, replacing long-time members of the medical community with a revolving door of newcomers until new doctors could be recruited.
The medical community and the general public rallied around Haywood Emergency Physicians, but the hospital board voted unanimously to terminate their contract anyway. Observers familiar with the issue attributed the move to a power struggle between hospital CEO David Rice and some of the ER doctors.
Now, county commissioners will have the opportunity to reappoint three members currently serving on the hospital board or replace them with new members. Harley Caldwell, a critic of Rice and the current hospital board, said the commissioners’ decision will be indicative one way or the other. If the commissioners reappoint the same three board members, they agree with what was done.
“That would be my indication, they don’t care what goes on down there,” Caldwell said.
In a letter to the county commissioners, the current hospital board endorsed the reappointment of all three members who are currently serving — Dr. Richard Steel, Dr. Nancy Freeman and Jim Stevens.
“We feel it is important to reappoint these board members in order to ensure continuity,” the letter stated.
The hospital is launching a new surgery center, and the continuity of current board members will be important to that project, the letter states. Fund raising in the community — a necessity to the project’s success — could be hampered if the public is disgruntled at the hospital board for ousting the ER doctors.
Two of the new applicants for the medical board are respected doctors in the community — Dr. Henry Nathan and Dr. Luis Munoz.
Nathan was one of four doctors appointed by the medical community to share their collective concerns with the hospital board over the ousting the ER doctors late last year. Nathan spoke of a disconnect that had evolved in recent years between the hospital board and medical community.
“We rarely feel the need to interject our opinions on the board,” Nathan told the board during a packed meeting in December. “When we do please take note. It is probably important. Please listen to us.”
Nathan also cited the net loss of doctors the community has witnessed in recent years.
“Our focus should be on physician recruitment and physician retention, not physician rejection,” Nathan said.
Applicants to the hospital board are asked to write a brief statement on why they would like to serve.
In Munoz’ application, he gave Rice credit for building up the hospital to a reputable institution during the 1990s, but cited a disturbing trend of late.
“In the last few years, however, there has been an alarming outflow of physicians and contractual disputes, resulting in tensions between medical staff and administration that are harmful to our community,” Munoz stated on his application. “I believe my established relationship with both the medical staff and administration can help this hospital, staff and the county move forward collectively and unified.”
Nathan, who has served on the hospital board in the past, also cited the need for physician recruitment and retention, as well as nurses.
“I care deeply about out community and its health care. I want to help it thrive for years to come,” Nathan wrote on his application.
What to do
Three commissioners interviewed about the upcoming hospital board appointments all said they would appoint who they thought was the best person for the job, regardless of whether it was a current board member or one of the new applicants.
“We look at everybody’s application and we interview everybody, including the three who are re-applying,” said Commissioner Mary Ann Enloe.
Enloe said she will not be swayed to re-appoint the current board members simply because that’s who the hospital wants on its board.
“That does not mean we will go that way,” Enloe said. “That is our decision to make.”
Enloe said all the commissioners received phone calls from angry constituents over the ousting the ER doctors late last year. Enloe said it is something she will likely ask the applicants about during their interview before the commissioners.
“In the interview process, they sit on the hot seat before all five of the commissioners and each one of us has the opportunity to ask anything we want,” Enloe said.
Commissioner Bill Upton said he will make up his mind based on the interviews with the applicants.
“I don’t have any preconceived notions either way. Otherwise why interview if you already have in your mind what you are going to do,” Upton said. “Everybody needs the same chance. We are going to have to go with the best people.”
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said he also had an open mind.
“I don’t think I would put people on a board because I approve or disapprove of what the present hospital administration is doing,” Kirkpatrick said.
That said, he does prefer independent thinkers when making appointments to any county board.
“We want people who can be objective and independent in making decisions and not be influence by the hospital administration,” Kirkpatrick said. “Not to say that the hospital administration is doing a bad job, but you want the board to make independent decisions, not because the hospital administration says ‘Hey, we need to do this.’”
Kirkpatrick also said he will base his decision on the interviews with applicants.
The commissioners will schedule interviews with applicants the first couple weeks in April and could make the appointments at their commissioners meeting on April 16. All five commissioners vote on the applicants they prefer. The applicants with the most votes will get appointed.
Commissioners Larry Ammons and Skeeter Curtis could not be reached for comment.
Caldwell said he hopes the commissioners put independent thinkers on the board, not yes people for Rice.
“They need to change that whole scenario down there,” Caldwell said. “We need to make sure he has somebody to answer to beside his hand-picked board.”
Dr. Steele, a current board member reapplying for his seat, did not make any apologies for the controversial ER vote.
“I am proud to say that I believe this board stands behind its vote when our primary goal is always the welfare and need of our community,” Steele wrote on his application.
Jim Stevens, one of the current hospital board members up for reappointment, stated on his application that the hospital board is the “most complicated and time consuming board I have served on.” Stevens said he would like to serve another term “now that I have learned what’s happening.”
Another applicant for a seat on the hospital board, Mark Jaben, is one of the ousted doctors with Haywood Emergency Physicians. Since Jaben’s group has filed a lawsuit against the hospital for wrongful termination, it is unlikely he would be appointed to serve on the board of the entity he’s suing.
Another applicant, Garry Wooten, works at the hospital. According to hospital board by-laws, board members cannot be employees of the hospital, so he likely won’t get appointed either.
Three seats on the Haywood Regional Medical Center board are up for appointment in April. The application deadline for the hospital board is Wednesday, March 28. Here’s who had applied as of press time Tuesday.
• Dr. Richard Steele, current member
• Dr. Nancy Freeman, current member
• Jim Stevens, current member
• Dr. Henry Nathan
• Dr. Luis Munoz
• Dr. Mark Jaben
• Garry Wooten