District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards pulled no punches in a statement she read at the end of last week’s regular meeting of the Grant County Commission. The statement criticized the Gila Regional Medical Center board of trustees for not providing adequate oversight of the hospital’s administration, led by Chief Executive Officer Taffy Arias.
As she has during the past several commission meetings, Edwards encouraged members of the community to think about applying for one of the three Gila Regional Medical Center board of trustee positions that are coming up for appointment.
Treasurer Joel Schram and Chairman Mike Morones have indicated they will likely reapply; a physician-only trustee position, currently held by Dr. Tsering Sherpa, will probably be up for grabs.
From the Grant County website:
“The Grant County Board of Commissioners is currently seeking qualified applicants to fill open Board of Trustees positions to the Gila Regional Medical Center (GRMC) Board of Trustees. Term of Service is a minimum of three (3) years beginning August 1, 2019 and ending July 31, 2022. Gila Regional Medical Center (GRMC) is a Grant County Owned, not-for-profit, acute care medical center. The seven-member Board of Trustees is the Governing Body of the medical center and is responsible for ensuring a high-quality patient care delivery system managed in a fiscally responsible manner.”
That last part is where Edwards — and District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne — thinks the trustees could do better.
“The board of trustees is doing very little to hold the administration accountable — it seems there is no accountability around basic business planning and benchmarks around strategic planning,” Edwards said, while acknowledging the good work of Richard Stokes, the hospital’s chief financial officer. “The quality of the financial reporting has improved a lot.”
Edwards went on to illustrate ongoing issues the hospital is having, including staffing problems.
“There are 76 job openings currently, according to the Gila Regional Medical Center website,” she said. “Particularly alarming is the number of director positions currently open.”
Edwards listed some of those positions, which she told the Daily Press could be an indication of low morale at the hospital. “Director of perioperative services, director of financial services, director of maternal child health services, director of the hospital foundation — there are also many other openings having to do with patient care.”
According to the Gila Regional website, as of Monday, there are now 77 open job listings at the hospital, including director of the emergency department and 10 registered nurse positions.
Edwards is also concerned that Gila Regional is taking a competition-based approach in its own financial interests over collaboration with other health care providers in the area. She is concerned, for example, about the possibility of Gila Regional expanding outside clinical services that would compete with existing services in the community.
“There is a distinct sense of fierce competition between the hospital and other providers,” she told commissioners. “It seems there is no accountability around basic business planning — specifically around off-site clinics.” The current board of trustees seems content to let hospital administrators continue forward with what one trustee, Ed Wilmot, called “an intuitive-based management style.”
Wilmot essentially agrees with Edwards and Browne, who say the current board of trustees is not providing enough oversight of Arias’ administration. “Unless trustees are on certain key committees, we don’t get full information,” Wilmot said. “We’re supposed to have an opinion developed from knowing the whole picture.”
He added that too much hospital business is held over for executive session and even then the board does little but agree to the administration’s wishes. “We never have full discussions to form strategic planning,” he said. “Strategic planning gets short shrift.”
At the last trustees meeting, Wilmot spoke up and publicly told fellow trustees there needed to be more transparency at board meetings, saying, “If I were the public, I would want to know.”
The New Mexico Open Meetings Act, which is supposed to guarantee that “deliberations of public bodies be open to the public,” allows an exception for hospitals to discuss in secret all things associated with strategic planning and business.
“We are openly conservative about how we interpret the Open Meetings Act,” Wilmot told the Daily Press on Monday.
Edwards agreed: “They can conduct basically any amount of their business behind closed doors, and I think that Gila Regional takes full advantage of that.”
Arias disagrees with Browne and Edwards’ assessment: “I am curious as to why these two commissioners are so anti-community hospital — it is a very disturbing situation,” she said.
“We have remained positive and honest about everything we do, but because some decisions to grow do not meet some of the commissioners’ desires or special interests, the hospital administration is continually insulted and grossly unsupported.”
Wilmot has openly criticized the board for not keeping the hospital’s administration in check. In a February statement to the Gila Regional board of trustees — which he also sent to Grant County commissioners and County Manager Charlene Webb — Wilmot noted the “unwillingness of the board to challenge the chief executive officer about strategic plans, decisions and current activities.”
Both Edwards and Browne still express disbelief that in 2016 the board (with the exception of Wilmot, who was not yet a trustee) approved what Edwards called an “ironclad contract” that leaves little room for terminating the CEO.
“I think that it is a highly unusual contract. I talked to other hospitals and people thought that it was very odd,” Browne said. “I would add that the requirements in the contract that had to be met before the hospital could terminate the contract — our reading of it was that she would have to commit a felony to terminate that contract.
“If she drove the hospital into bankruptcy she couldn’t be terminated,” he said.
Trustee Tony Trujillo was on the board when Arias’ contract was approved and he disputes the commissioners’ claims that the contract has anything wrong with it.
“They have had issues with the fact that we gave her a five-year non-cancelable contract,” Trujillo said. “We wanted stability going forward. To say it is non-revocable isn’t right and I beg to differ.”
Edwards said she hopes others will throw their hats in the ring for the trustee positions that Schram and Morones currently hold, although she acknowledges the experience the banker and certified public accountant bring to the board.
“I hope to have board members that are interested in strategic planning, visioning, accountability and collaborating on community partnerships,” she said. “I do think financial management skills are really important, but you have to have a balance of skills and vision.”
Stokes hopes Schram and Morones keep their positions.
“Joel and Mike are the only two with finance experience,” he said. “It would be difficult to get new trustees up to speed.”
Geoffrey Plant may be reached at geoff@scdaily press.com.