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Hospital reverses decision to close birthing center, but questions remain

New Southwest Health System CEO Joe Theine will replace interim CEO David Faulkner, who resigned under heavy criticism from residents and doctors. (Courtesy Photo)
New CEO will start work July 24; hospital board again faces criticism

On June 19, Southwest Health Systems announced the hospital’s birthing center would remain open, reversing a decision to close it beginning July 1, and a day later announced that Joe Theine would replace interim CEO David Faulkner, who resigned under heavy criticism from residents and doctors.

According to an email sent to SHS staff from Community Hospital Corp.’s Joe Thomason and obtained by The Journal, Faulkner “shared that this change will hopefully allow for healing and renewal.”

“Theine has been actively improving community health in Southwest Colorado for more than a decade,” the news release said, adding that he served as CEO for Animas Surgical Hospital in Durango for four years.

“Theine brings compassion for, and an understanding of, local health care. He has a special interest in how health care providers contribute to economic stability and growth in many sectors of the economy,” the news release said.

Until Theine arrives, sometime around July 24, the CEO position is being covered by “interim interim” CEO Gene Miller.

The decision to reopen the birthing center came after great community and health worker dissent.

Retired physicians including Dr. Robert Heyl, Dr. Brian and Carla Demby and Dr. Kent Akin spoke at the Montezuma County Hospital District board meeting on June 15 and urged the board to find solutions or to hear community input before going through with their decision.

Southwest Health board again hears complaints

And at a nearly three-hour-long SHS board meeting on Wednesday, June 28, community members addressed the board once again, expressing concerns for the hospital and birthing center.

Former labor and delivery nurses from Gallup also spoke, telling the board what happened at the Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital last year.

Rehoboth McKinley, which is also managed by CHC, had their labor and delivery department closed before being reopened because of concerns about care. Then, because of low staffing and other issues, the labor and delivery unit was officially closed at the end of July, less than a year after it was originally announced.

In a letter to the board from the Members of Community Health Action Group in Gallup, they spoke of the troubles at their hospital in the past two years.

“Our community’s calls for transparency and accountability have gone unheeded, and it is clear that CHC’s tenure will not turn our hospital around, but instead bring it ever closer to the brink of closure,” the letter said.

“You have a rare opportunity, now, to demand better for your community,” the letter continued. “Demand transparency and accountability.”

Dr. Erin Schmitt, one of the hospital’s two obstetricians and gynecologists also spoke, tearfully urging the board to reconsider their actions and set on a better path for the hospital, speaking about the now broken trust between the hospital and community.

“An even bigger challenge is going to be building the services and the trust of the community as the secrecy and the mistrust in this system has really had an impact on all of us,” she said.

She also told about a patient who on Monday suffered one of the worst hemorrhages she had ever seen after a normal vaginal delivery. She said the patient wouldn’t have survived if she had been transported to Durango.

One community member asked if Theine could continue to be CEO even if ties were severed with Community Hospital Corp. Thomason said that they wouldn’t stop Theine from staying at SHS even if CHC were no longer the hospital’s management company.

Montezuma County commissioners hear complaints

At the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners meeting Tuesday, interim CEO Gene Miller, Chief Nursing Officer Lisa Gates and CFO Shelle Diehm addressed the county commissioners.

Akin said he and other retired physicians were concerned about the loss of doctors and nurses in recent months and asked that the commissioners help them work toward solutions.

“The SHS board and administration haven’t made it clear what is going to happen there, and though they say it’ll stay open for the short term, we know that there are staff who work there who are looking for other work,” Akin said. “If that happens, it will be very difficult to keep obstetric care in our community.”

He said he hoped the SHS board would make a clearer statement on how things would look moving forward.

Akin also expressed his concern with four vacancies on the seven-seat hospital board. He noted that the board needs to release its bylaws so members of the community will know what is required to become a board member.

During the Wednesday board meeting, the board said they had nine individuals who wanted to be on the board, and they would hold interviews to tentatively name three new board members in August.

Akin asked that the commissioners consider facilitating a workshop to allow both hospital boards and stakeholders to discuss solutions to the issues facing the hospital.

Montezuma Democrat chairwoman Mary Dodd also spoke, saying that she has been in contact with Colorado senators and representatives to see what can be done about the hospital “crisis.”

She said the community and the hospital workers are fighting “against a toxic corporation who have waged war against the people who work there.”

“The birthing center is critical,” Dodd said, adding that nurses are facing a mystery in regard to their future at the hospital, and the board needs to be more transparent about what things will look like moving forward.

After citizen comments, commissioners said their goal was to create a dialogue with the hospital and community.

“We are committed to the OB program. No question,” said interim CEO Miller. He said in his five weeks in Cortez and one week as interim CEO, he has been looking through financials and searching for options.

“We have to grow,” he said.

Miller expressed his confidence in Theine, saying the new CEO could help stabilize SHS.

“I’m very optimistic that we can continue to grow and meet those needs,” he said.

County commissioners asked why board bylaws weren’t available for the community to view, and asked that they be released. Diehm said she would talk to the lawyers about that request.

The SHS board on Wednesday followed up, announcing it would adding bylaws, meeting agendas, minutes, financials and more to the hospital website so that they could be viewed by the public.

SHS board President Shirley Jones had said the decision to close the birthing center came during a period of extreme financial duress. The hospital bond requires that the hospital have 80 days of cash on hand, and that cash dipped to about 60 days after a bad financial month in April.

Diehm provided more detail Tuesday for county commissioners, saying the hospital lost $415,000 in April, dropping its cash on hand from 80 days to 62. She said she believes the hospital was back to 71 days but still at risk.

She added that insurance company Humana’s exit from the hospital was causing a “significant hit to operations.”

Gates also added that she knew the hospital had to remove “a culture of fear in the hospital.”

‘We continue to lose money’

In a June 7 recording of an employee forum obtained by The Journal, then-CEO Faulkner employees told employees that Southwest Health was losing money.

“We continue to lose money. So far this year to date, $1.4 million. We cannot continue on this track, and labor and delivery is a service that we lose significant money on,” he said.

Although the hospital had lost COVID-19 funding, he said it was “no secret” that the hospital had been losing money for some time.

He said an outside assessment had determined that 65% of women in the county go outside the community for obstetric care.

“It’s not fun, and nobody’s happy about it, but you’ve got to hold up to your commitments, and the banks are not very happy with us right now,” he said.

The decision was met with community pushback, which peaked June 16 at a meeting hosted by the SHS board. More than 100 people attended, including pregnant mothers, young mothers, middle-aged parents, health workers and elderly citizens.

Several called for Community Hospital Corp. to be removed as manager of Southwest Memorial Hospital. A petition was also created by members of the community through change.org, and was posted on the Facebook page Keep Our Birthing Center Open Cortez.

Schmitt and fellow gynecology and obstetric Dr. Jessica Kaplan and Schmitt were notified the day before the news release announced that the birthing center would be closed. They were informed that the last day they could take laboring patients was June 28.

In the weeks that followed, both doctors helped to lead the discussion surrounding the birthing center.

For Kaplan, the struggle might not be over.

“I’m relieved the birthing center is staying open for now,” she told the Journal in a text, “but very concerned about the future of not only the birthing center, but also the whole hospital under CHC’s poor management.”