Administrator firings at WhidbeyHealth elicit an outcry

The public hospital’s CEO cited “the continued financial viability of the organization” for the dismissal of four managers.

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COUPEVILLE — Three hospital administrators who were the target of a “no-confidence” vote still have their jobs, but four other members of the executive team do not.

A week after WhidbeyHealth medical providers overwhelmingly passed a vote of no confidence in CEO Ron Telles, Chief Operating Officer Dr. Garth Miller and attorney Jake Kempton, Telles terminated four people in administrative positions who were brought in during the past couple of years to help make improvements in a public hospital system with serious financial and public perception problems.

The fired executive team members were Chief Nursing Officer Erin Wooley, Chief Information Officer Brett Mello, Human Resources Officer Debbie DeCorde and Quality Control Officer Jon Scallan.

In a written statement, Telles said it was “an incredibly difficult decision, but important for the continued financial viability of the organization.”

“We have accomplished great things in the past year,” he wrote, “including passage of the levy lift. However, after rigorous financial analysis, it was clear that more action was needed, including reducing and restructuring the executive team.”

The reaction from the community was swift, dramatic and overwhelmingly critical of Telles and the hospital board. Many felt Telles’ actions were retaliatory toward members of the executive team who were honest about the problems in the organization. Others opined that he was creating “organizational chaos” which would make it difficult for the board to get rid of him.

Many hospital employees spoke with Whidbey News-Times anonymously for fear of retaliation, but others were willing to go on the record because they felt the community needs to know what is happening.

Dr. David Lemme, chief-elect of the medical staff, said the terminations were part of a longtime and troubling pattern on the part of the administration. The level of turnover in the public hospital district and clinics is a profound problem, he said, and it’s not just due to wages. The administration often doesn’t treat people with respect or work to build their trust.

“We’re losing quality providers because of personality issues,” he said. “…They fire or coerce valuable members of the team to go somewhere else.”

Many of the people who contacted the News-Times were especially concerned to lose Wooley, who was described as a leader who did much to improve the perception of the hospital across Whidbey Island and successfully organized the hospital’s COVID-19 response.

The Washington State Nurses Association, known as WSNA, released a statement saying that the nurses at WhidbeyHealth were surprised by Wooley’s departure. The association described her as “a respected leader and advocate for quality patient care.”

The association said the retention and recruitment of nurses will be a top priority.

“The nurses have not had a meaningful raise since 2018,” the association said. “Their salaries are far behind area market and there are critically low staffing levels in several units of the hospital.”

Bill McDaniel, a retired rear admiral who ran Navy hospitals, is a board member of the WhidbeyHealth Foundation, which raises money for the hospital. He said he has serious concerns about Telles’ actions. He said his initial response when hearing that the four people were terminated for financial reasons was “bull.”

“We just passed a levy to pay for high-quality people like this,” he said, referring to a levy lift that will generate an extra $6 million a year in property tax revenue.

McDaniel said the loss of Wooley will be widely felt.

“Everybody in the hospital thinks the world of Erin. She’s a star. She’s the one we go to,” he said.

Ultimately, McDaniel said, the community deserves better answers.

“It bothers me that this occurred at this time and in this manner,” he said.

Dr. John Hassapis, a general surgeon, said elected members of the hospital board are ultimately responsible for the problems. He said the medical staff — which includes physicians, nurse practitioners and other providers — decided to take the no-confidence vote because they felt their concerns weren’t being transmitted to the board.

According to the doctor, 40 providers took part in the vote. Thirty voted in favor of the no-confidence vote, four voted against it and six declined to vote.

Hassapis, too, said high turnover is a major concern.

“Patients can’t see the same doctor twice in a row,” he said.

The hospital board met with representatives from the medical staff for nearly three hours last week to discuss the no-confidence vote. The board went into a closed-door executive session and took no action afterward.

Another executive session was scheduled for Monday evening.

While many people see difficult problems in the administration of the hospital, many also emphasized that the doctors and other providers are top-notch.

Wooley said she was surprised and saddened by her termination, but she wants people to trust in the quality of health care they will receive from the hospital and clinics, despite management issues.

“Without a doubt,” she said, “WhidbeyHealth has some of the finest providers and absolutely outstanding clinicians.”

This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sibling publication of The Daily Herald.

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