County commissioners demanded changes from Weems Memorial Hospital CEO Mike Cooper at Tuesday morning’s meeting.
Commissioner Cheryl Sanders insisted on the upgrading of Weems East Clinic into an urgent care facility in Carrabelle for residents of the county’s east end. Commissioners, who last month rescinded hospital-wide pay raises, asked Cooper to reassess the pay increases for staff.
They also learned that Emergency Management Director Jarrod Wester had submitted his resignation.
Sanders quoted the 2007 ordinance authorizing an additional one-cent sales tax to support medical care in the county, which specifies the county fund an urgent care facility in Carrabelle before applying any of the funds to renovating Weems.
“By not having an urgent care facility we have broken the agreement.” she said. “I want these agreements to be acknowledged. I want to see this done and I don’t care what it costs. We’re going to have to do this or face a lawsuit from Carrabelle.”
Any delay of the proposed new construction of Weems hospital in Apalachicola could put a damper on ongoing negotiations with Tallahassee Memorial Hospital for TMH to become a managing partner of Weems. TMH CEO Mark O’Bryant has stipulated that any proposed deal include a promise by the county to build a new facility, and to continue the contribution of sales tax monies.
Cooper said Weems East had never been run as an urgent care facility, and was not licensed to perform that function.
Sanders disagreed, and insisted Dr. Eugene Charbonneau and nurse practitioner Dana Whaley had performed urgent care procedures there. She held up a picture of the facility on her tablet and told Cooper to read the sign.
“It says Primary and Urgent Care Facility,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter what it says on the sign,” replied Cooper.
Sanders said she had received complaints about people being turned away from Weems East. “A lot of people are very upset,” she said.
Members of the audience chanted, “We need Charbonneau back.”
Other commissioners agreed they had received complaints about patients turned away from both Weems clinics.
Audience member Wendell Barfield Jr. took the podium and identified himself as a Weems employee but said he was speaking as a concerned citizen.
He said Dr. Emma Stoll, supervising physician at both clinics, has made disparaging remarks about both patients and employees of the clinics, including Whaley who he said is his cousin.
Barfield said he helped set up the Apalachicola clinic, and has worked at Weems East extensively.
He agreed with Sanders that Charbonneau and Whaley in the past performed urgent care procedures at Weems East, including setting bones and stitching wounds.
Barfield said Stoll “has said horrible things, like that all handicapped people should not drive. She needs to go. She has treated people horribly.”
He said Stoll turns patients away, refuses to refer them and would not allow Whaley to perform her clinic duties. Cooper said the problems with the clinics were being addressed.
At the same meeting, after he received a letter of commendation from George Pruett, Eastpoint’s fire chief, and Jay Abbott, St. George Island’s chief, commissioners learned that Wester tendered his resignation last week.
Pruett expressed deep regret at the news.
Sanders said she considered Wester “beyond reproach” and asked Cooper if he had spoken to Wester and attempted to retain him.
Cooper said he had, and that Wester had agreed to act as a trainer several times a year.
“We have an interim plan in place that is budget neutral.” Cooper said. “The ambulances, paramedics and chase vehicles will all be maintained.”
Cooper said revenue and collections at Weems are strong and the hospital likely will receive $400,000 in revenue in October, for the fifth month in a row. He said the hospital received $340,000 in Meaningful Use money as expected in September, and that the hospital has 23 days of operating funds in the bank. He said none of the funds received had been used to repay the hospital’s debt to the Health Care Trust Fund.
Cooper said the atmosphere of ongoing talks between TMH and Alliant Health Care was positive. He asked if he could consult County Attorney Michael Shuler about legal aspects of Weems’ relationship with Alliant and TMH.
“I’d like Mr. Shuler to look at everything and let us know what’s going on,” said Commissioner William Massey.
Commissioners asked Cooper if he had reconsidered pay raises to Weems employees; Commissioner Smokey Parrish asked the CEO to reconsider the increases, taking into consideration what the hospital can afford to spend.
Commissioners voted unanimously to have Cooper do so.
The rescinded raises amounted to $120,000 annually, bringing Weems payroll to $4 million. Seventy-five percent of the wage increase was distributed to Weems’ top six administrators, with other hospital employees receiving modest raises.
Commissioner Noah Lockley said rescinding the raises had “hurt the little people,” and that he wanted to see “dollar for dollar” pay increases to lower paid employees.
Commissioner Smokey Parrish told Cooper it was the large raises for administrators that led to a firestorm of public objection.
Cooper said nobody at the hospital had received a raise in four years and he was trying to adjust the incomes of employees to make them fairer because newer employees were hired at a higher pay level than long term employees.
“The big raises were what the market told us to do. It was not to do anything other than to end inequality,” Cooper said.
Lockley told Cooper he had never seen anything similar happen in the 12 years he has been seated on the county board and called the decision to award increases “bad timing.”
Parrish told Cooper, “Rome wasn’t built in a day. We’re trying to build a new facility and generate funds. You can’t straighten all this up in one shot. You can’t overextend revenue. I want to see employees get a raise as you can afford it, but if you put the organization in danger, (employees) might not get a paycheck.”
Massey asked if Cooper would consider raises only to lower-income hourly employees or to the entire staff.
“Let’s let Mr. Cooper decide that,” Parrish said. “That’s why we pay him.”
Massey told Cooper to give extra consideration to lower income employees.
Allen Feifer, with the Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, suggested the hospital set a minimum wage of $11 per hour for all employees. Lockley and Sanders both said they agreed with the plan.
Parrish said the board should wait until Cooper returned with his suggestions to discuss minimum salaries.
After Cooper stepped down, he was followed to the podium by Kristen Bell, a registered nurse at Weems.
“I weep for the people of this county,” she said. “If you wait, you won’t have any staff left (at the hospital). They are walking out. We get no benefits, no lunch breaks. We work 12 hours without a lunch break. We can’t build a new hospital because we can’t fix what’s broken (at Weems.).”
She said during the last week, in addition to Wester, two nurses and a housekeeper resigned and that the hospital was operating with a skeleton staff.
“Our health system is failing before our eyes. Please do something,” Bell said.