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Hospital District trustees feel ignored by medical center

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN (Week of March 13, 2014)

Hospital District trustees, who direct property tax dollars to Indian River Medical Center for indigent care, say they are becoming increasingly dismayed over what they see as a growing tendency on the part of hospital leadership to shut them out of communications.

They are particularly disturbed that hospital leaders appear to have reneged on two promises made to the District that were key to obtaining the District’s approval for the new Cancer Center.

One of those promises was that an independent, outside firm would conduct a top-to-bottom review of hospital operations and report to the hospital’s strategic planning committee and District trustees.

But Hospital District chairman Tom Spackman said that even though he is on the hospital’s strategic planning committee, he has seen nothing about the review.

“I don’t know who is overseeing it. I hope it’s an independent review,” Spackman said at a District chairman’s meeting at the end of last week.

But according to the proposal of the firm Alvarez & Marsal, which is conducting the review, the findings will be provided to “the responsible party,” hospital CEO Jeff Susi.

That proposal, dated Feb. 5, went out to hospital board members in early March. But District trustees were excluded from the distribution.

“The bottom line,” said Spackman, “is that trustees ought to have the authority to see if the work is sufficient, but the process has been somewhat opaque.”

Hospital board member Hugh McCrystal told Spackman at last week’s meeting that he had been interviewed by Alvarez & Marsal consultants and found them to be “very thorough.”

But hospital board member Matt Reiser said he had also been interviewed and had reservations: “The concept of independence is a concern,” Reiser told District trustees.

Trustee Harris Webber agreed that the planned review did not appear to be comprehensive and the promise to keep the District informed was not being kept: “You would think that there would be an analysis department by department, and someone would call us and say here’s where we are and here’s where we want to go,” he said.

Another promise made by the hospital to the District was that the hospital would hire a head hunter to conduct a national search for a strong hospital chief operating officer, and the process would be overseen by a search committee made up of hospital board members and committee members.

“I was asked to be on the search committee, but have been excluded from the information,” said Spackman.

The choice of the new COO “is now solely in the hands of the CEO,” said Spackman, which means that “the process is not unfolding as we believed it would.”

Hospital board member Paul Nezi, who attended the District meeting, said he, as a hospital board member, asked the hospital board chairman for “January financials” three times before he got them on the last day of February.

Also, he said, it was “of great concern” to him as a taxpayer that the hospital was not keeping the Hospital District better informed.

District trustees no longer receive the monthly president’s report from the hospital CEO. Nor do they receive detailed financial reports from the hospital. Also, meetings between hospital CEO Jeff Susi and the District’s executive director Ann Marie Suriano have been stopped by the hospital.

“I talked to Jeff about hospital communications no longer coming to the District and he said Lisa (his assistant) would communicate things of relevance,” said Suriano.

District trustees pointed out that hospital board meetings – open to the District and the public – are down to four to six a year.

“The Hospital District is much better informed on hospital issues than the hospital board of directors,” said hospital board member Hugh McCrystal.

“Because of our responsibility to the taxpayers, we are not being unreasonable in asking for more,” said Spackman.

A few days ago, hospital CEO Jeff Susi responded by email to Vero Beach 32963 questions about the District’s concern over a lack of hospital communication.

Susi replied that he worked “in a variety of ways to keep (District trustees) informed.”

As for the top-down operational review promised to District trustees in exchange for approving the Cancer Center, Susi said the hospital would report the findings of the firm conducting the review to the hospital’s Strategic Planning Committee in the coming weeks. A District trustee is on that committee, he noted.

Turning to the search for a chief operating officer, Susi made no mention of District involvement in the process but said that he anticipated the position would be filled before mid-May.

Finally, as to the District’s concerns over lack of communications from the hospital, Susi said the Medical Center had hired the national healthcare communications firm of Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock “to help us determine how to enhance communications with all of the audiences who matter to us.”