IF YOU GO
The Erlanger Board of Trustees will meet at 6 p.m. Monday. Before the meeting, they will hold a closed legal session
DOCTORS WHO HAVE SIGNED
Dr. Paul Apyan
Dr. Dale Ingram
UT Erlanger Cardiology
Dr. Michael Love -- Director
Dr. J. Carter Hemphill
Dr. Robert Huang
Dr. Poonam Puri
Dr. Carol Gruver
Dr. Walter L. Few
Dr. T. David Gbadebo
Dr. David Blalock
Southeast Regional Stroke Center at Erlanger
Dr. Thomas Devlin, director
Dr. Blaise Baxter
Dr. Biggya Satpkota
Dr. Frank Kimsey
PLEDGED TO SIGN
Dr. Robert Hamilton -- Director of Erlanger Main Campus Emergency
Dr. Kent Hutson -- Chief of radiology at Erlanger Health System and Chair of Radiology at UTCOM
On the eve of a vote that could set Erlanger Health System's new CEO in place, a group of senior physicians with the hospital is strongly urging the board of trustees to hold off.
More than a dozen physicians -- several in top positions at the hospital -- have signed a letter stating that doctors are "seriously concerned" about recent events surrounding the hospital's leadership.
They worry that a seismic shift in hospital leadership at this time will lead to the deterioration of physician relationships, prompting another exodus like the one seen under former CEO Jim Brexler as well as continued financial turmoil for the hospital.
"We have watched a process unfold that raises many questions about both the clinical and academic future of our institution," the letter states. "Because of that, we feel that it is most important that the selection of new leadership should be placed in the hands of the people who will be held responsible for the hospital's future."
The hospital's board of trustees is on the verge of being overhauled by a state bill that zipped through the House last week and is expected to head to the Senate this week.
That means if a new CEO is approved Monday, the board that voted him in will not be the same board he ends up working for, the doctors emphasized.
"We're very much at a crossroads, and there's a lot of things that make us very, very nervous," said Dr. Tom Devlin, who is director of the Southeast Regional Stroke Center at Erlanger. "The CEO is the most critical person at the hospital. This decision should not be rushed, and it should be done with the input of the full clinical staff."
"There has never truly an open forum for physicians to ask questions," he said. "Many of us have never even met the candidates, which is strange to us because we are the leading revenue generators of the hospital."
Devlin and other doctors said they feared that putting their names on the line would endanger their jobs and the programs they have built. Nevertheless, they said they could not sit back quietly while the board moves ahead.
Several members of the group have hired an attorney, and they planned to collect more signatures before Monday's scheduled vote.
"I'm disappointed in this whole process," said Dr. Mike Love, Erlanger's medical director of cardiology, who has been at the hospital for 35 years. "We're here on the front lines every day. We know where the problems are, we know what the problems are. And still we know very little about how this process has been carried out, and we have not been a part of it. We just do not understand why there is this push to appoint a CEO right now."
A board member said the pending transition is exactly why they want to push ahead with the vote.
"The search has been going on since April, and all three candidates are highly qualified," trustee Mike Griffin said. "The board is getting ready to transition, and no one knows what that looks like. Erlanger needs great leadership. Why not close this down instead of leaving it open-ended?"
Trustee James Worthington disagreed, saying he believes the vote is being rushed and that a new CEO should not have to deal with the board transition.
"I'm not of the opinion today that our greatest need is to hire a CEO," he said. "I know the board. When our former CEO was there ... we were fiddling while our big boat was sinking. Then we delayed acting. This time, I'm concerned we are acting too quickly, prior to it being in Erlanger's best interest."
Members of the Hamilton County legislative delegation, who in January had written a strongly-worded letter cautioning the board to slow the search process, have always acknowledged they couldn't prevent a vote.
"If somebody takes [the CEO job] without knowing the structure or knowing who's going to be their boss, that's up to them. I'm not going to interfere," said state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who is sponsoring the Senate version of the Erlanger overhaul bill.
The CEO search began last April and has narrowed to three men: Rear Adm. Donald Gintzig, a senior health care executive with the U.S. Navy; Ken Haynes, former CEO of the seven-hospital St. Joseph Health System in Kentucky; and Kevin Spiegel, who oversees Methodist University Hospital in Memphis and is an assistant professor with University of Tennessee College of Medicine (UTCOM).
Spiegel's connections with UTCOM are a key factor making the doctors uneasy, they say.
"We do have in our possession documents that suggest UT has a strong interest in taking more of a leadership and controlling aspect over the hospital itself. That has never been discussed in an open forum," Devlin said.
Love said there had "always been a town-and-gown fight" for as long as he's been at Erlanger, but now "the threat that the university could be forced on us feels true."
Local lawmakers who have previously expressed worry over UTCOM's intentions have more recently said they believe Spiegel intends to keep Erlanger a community hospital if he gets the job.
Support for interim
Concerns about UTCOM aside, the group of doctors says they feel a CEO shift at this point will mean losing important ground gained under interim CEO Charlesetta Woodard-Thompson's leadership, including improvements made through consulting with PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
"We've put in a lot of work with consultants the board brought in. And you wonder, was it worth the work we've put in so far? Is that going to be pushed aside?" asked Love.
Many of the doctors say they would prefer to have Woodard-Thompson remain in place for up to a year during the board transition.
In December, a group of physicians attended Erlanger's board meeting and spoke in support of Woodard-Thompson after she was passed over as a CEO finalist.
Love said that while the doctors felt they had not been heard at the meeting, they wanted to keep pushing for an audience.
"We're going to keep trying," said Love. "We want them to hear where we're coming from."
Some board members said they had considered input from doctors while weighing the decision.
"I have been speaking with doctors and I've been seeking them out during this process," trustee Jennifer Stanley said. "Personally, I'm thinking about the future of Erlanger, and Erlanger needs long-term leadership in place as soon as possible."
Trustee Russell King said while he initially felt it was important to slow the CEO selection while the Erlanger governance bill was introduced, he doesn't see the need for any more delay.
"We've got all of these physicians and a lot of stakeholders. I'm trying to listen to everyone, but we can't make everyone happy," he said. "At the end of this process we have to come together as a family, as Erlanger, and move forward."
Still, King said he was more inclined to leave Woodard-Thompson in charge than vote in one of the three official finalists, and that he would vote for her if possible.
The board will meet Monday in a closed session followed by an open meeting. Several board members said they probably won't make up their minds until after that meeting.
"My expectation is that there will be a no-holds-barred debate Monday night," said King. "It may get pretty intense before it's all said and done."