Emotions run high at WMC Board meeting
WRANGELL — With eight members of the Wrangell Medical Center Board of Directors facing recall in a June election, tensions were high among members of the board, supporters of the recall effort, and citizens of the borough at the directors’ most recent meeting at WMC.
At the May 23 meeting, board member Jim Nelson inquired of CEO Noel Rea whether allegations of WMC losing as many as 10 beds if the hospital is forced to update to current ADA standards was a “scare tactic.”
“I think when the (general obligation) bond question came up everyone started talking about it, so it was alleged to be a scare tactic,” Rea said. “The USDA clearly put it in black and white for us. That our rooms aren’t compliant is a fact.”
Rea added that if the USDA proposal for a different bond is put to the voters it would likely fail – leaving Wrangell without a new hospital.
“There would be no real likelihood of us getting a new facility in the near future, so we’d have to be compliant,” Rea said.
According to Rea, a number of spending cuts in the budget of the hospital replacement project, should it go forward, are also being implemented.
“We’ve moved a parking lot to the back instead of the front to save us on fill, we’re not paving a lot of roads now, and some of the other cuts were the canopy coverage between the two buildings,” Rea said. “That was originally a cost that was showing up 100 percent on the hospital budget. We’ve cut a canopy over the loading docks, we’ve cut equipment, and we’ve cut furniture. It’s about everything we can do and we’re looking for ways.”
Once comment from Rea, staff and the board members were finished, the group approved the draft version of the 2013 budget unanimously.
The budget lists gross revenue at $11,475,904, with net revenue at $9,813,147. The hospital’s total expenses for 2013 are expected to equal $9,326,116.
In other business, a new mammography machine is set to go online June 2, with the board set to take part in Alaska’s Open Meeting Act training with the borough early that same month.
During public comment, an outpouring of emotion came from both board representatives and members of the public at the meeting.
Wrangellite Judy Allen addressed the group during the open comment section of the meeting and called into question the 2007 hiring of Rea, and what she said was an illegal move to bar Borough Assembly liaison David Jack from participating in executive session discussions.
“You have chosen to follow an administrator that is and was, in my opinion, under-qualified and overpaid from day one. He came to Wrangell with zero experience as an administrator, and he was hired against the recommendation of the former administrator,” Allen asserted. “Regarding the recall, if you believe you had legal justification for prohibiting the Borough Assembly liaison from participating in executive sessions, please produce the citation that says so, because I can’t find it.”
Board member Sylvia Ettefagh responded to Allen by saying that her comment was based on opinion, rather than fact.
“Thank you for coming here and making your statement and your feelings and your opinions known,” Ettefagh said. “By the same token, these are your opinions … and I want to make clear that we make decisions here based on information that we receive … I’d like to see some backup of (your) facts, rather than just opinions and allegations.”
After the meeting Rea said the claim he is unqualified is a non-starter.
“I won’t spend a lot of time defending baseless accusations,” Rea said. “I was hired based on former administrator Brian Gilbert’s recommendation. He was my mentor and my guide and he brought me here. I even spoke to his wife recently about whether he thought I was a good administrator, before he passed away, and she said, ‘gosh yes.’”
Allen also raised the issue of Rea’s salary and disputed he is worth the $185,169.27 he makes annually.
“You voted at your last meeting to raise his salary to an astronomical level that exceeds by nearly $40,000 what the administrator of the Petersburg hospital makes,” Allen said. “And she has 20 years experience. Noel Rea has four years of on-the-job training.”
Rea was non-plussed by the assertion he is overpaid.
“This is a salary established by using a JB Reward Strategies study where it gave a recommended range for my pay,” Rea said. “I am in the 60th percentile of my peer group, so I’m just above mid-range for a hospital administrator in that group.”
JB Reward Strategies is a Seattle-based company specializing in human resources and compensation analysis for a number of municipal governments and private industries in the Pacific Northwest. Their website states that past clients have included hospitals in Petersburg, Ketchikan and Sitka.
Rea also countered his detractors by stating that his time in healthcare management extends back more than two decades.
“I have worked in various capacities in health care since 1991,” Rea added. “As far as my qualifications as a hospital administrator, I was voted to represent Alaska at the American Hospital Association’s regional policy board by my peers at the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, so I think that the success we have had over the last four years speaks to the quality of the staff, the board, and then me. It’s a team effort.”
Rea’s salary became an issue for supporters of the recall effort after Wrangell residents Janelle Privett and Bob Maxand filed Freedom of Information Act requests for Rea’s employment contracts. Three contracts and two contract amendments were released under the FOIA request and show a 68-percent increase in Rea’s compensation since he was hired in 2007 with a base salary of $109,616.
Allen’s statement also alleged that board member Linda Bjorge was allowed to participate in discussions regarding the privileging of Dr. Greg Salard while her husband, Bucky Bjorge, is embroiled in an on-going lawsuit with the physician.
During a response from Bjorge, board member Jim Nelson acted swiftly to keep her from continuing after she challenged Allen’s allegation.
“Judy, I respect you,” Bjorge said forcefully. “But who is standing behind this statement here? My husband is suing Dr. Salard for a botched operation that happened accidentally.”
At that point, Nelson stopped her.
“No, no, no, no, no, no. Stop,” Nelson said.
Regaining her composure, Bjorge explained her actions in recusing herself from Salard-related discussion.
“I told this board the next time (we met) I had a conflict of interest,” she said. “I asked to be recused myself. I didn’t have to be told. I’m not that d—- stupid.”
Information from the special WMC board meeting on May 30 was not available by press time.