published Friday, January 18th, 2013

Cook: Should Erlanger bleed orange?

If the crisis is not solved in a mature, thoughtful and solvent way, then Erlanger hospital as we know it will not make it out alive.

Its slow death will affect the healthy and sick, the poor and wealthy, the you and the me of Chattanooga.

Like a small city in the middle of Chattanooga, Erlanger employs thousands, operates a mighty budget that chuckles at the Honey Boo Boo-sized budgets of others, and has as its mission the well-being of anyone who walks through its doors.

Yet a train can only run one set of tracks. A puppet can only respond to so many puppeteers. And the identity -- the soul -- of the hospital is being tugged and pulled in many different directions.

Perhaps too many.

In one corner: Nashville legislators. They've cautioned Erlanger trustees to slow their CEO search, recently ratcheting up their pressure: Do not name a new CEO until we change the way people are appointed to your board.

Why? The hospital board is a patchwork of people, some with little to no hospital experience. Two board seats remain empty, as the slow hand of Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger has neglected for months to appoint anyone.

Yet Nashville is being pessimistic. Like a poor bedside manner, they're predicting the worst: A newly named CEO might not get along with a new board. The new board should come first; then they choose their CEO.

(Don't you get tired of stuff like this?)

In another corner: the current hospital board, pushing ahead to choose a new CEO, and still trying to mop up the residue of former head Jim Brexler. Want to know about him? Ask your local physician. The one who used to be at Erlanger and now works somewhere else.

Interim CEO Charlesetta Woodard-Thompson has made some right moves, mending fences with physicians and easing much of the hospital's budget problems.

Yet she wasn't included in the final three of CEO finalists?

And no one has really, fully, explained why?

(Don't you get tired of stuff like this?)

The board has said it would announce its non-Brexler, non-Woodard-Thompson CEO by the end of March. I'll bet 2-to-1 odds trustees announce early, perhaps within weeks, to defy Nashville legislators. Five-to-one their choice is Kevin Spiegel, who oversees the Methodist University Hospital in Memphis.

Which brings us to the Big Orange influence.

The University of Tennessee's College of Medicine, already receiving millions a year from Erlanger for its teaching program, wants to increase its influence and relationship with Erlanger. Is it time Erlanger bled more orange?

Cultivating the Erlanger-UT relationship is as important as the search for the new CEO. Both institutions, owned by the public, working together to heal people, could represent the best of our public services.

No, I'm not on morphine. Yes, such an idea is idealistic. But we're talking about a place that saves the lives of kids with cancer. Rebuilds bodies blown up by trauma. Keeps alive the most fragile babies.

Surely they can solve this.

Like any dilemma of this scale, the Erlanger crisis is bound together by the familiar four corners of conflict: people, power, politics and money.

Which brings up motives. And end-games.

But Erlanger remains more than just a hospital; it's something people believe in. And like the Hippocratic oath, it's something they devote their lives to.

Which means it's possible the best of Erlanger is yet to come.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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