In Our Opinion: Now that the hospital CEO is gone, the board should be next

Wholesale change is needed on the elected board of the Whidbey Island Hospital District.

But while the reasons for new leadership are legion, the success of any change will depend on who takes over. We need open-minded, unafraid, dedicated people who truly believe in transparency. This may be a tall order. WhidbeyHealth controversies of the past have come and gone, but incumbent board members regularly run unopposed.

Recent problems in the hospital district bear repeating.

Last month, the board was pushed to fire WhidbeyHealth CEO Ron Telles following the medical staff’s vote of no confidence in the administration, the firings of high-profile hospital employees and the spotlighting of long-term financial mismanagement. All this apparently caught the board by surprise.

In the middle of the pandemic in November 2020, when employees were being laid off and the hospital was struggling to stay afloat financially, the board quietly signed a new contract with Telles that raised his salary from $330,000 a year to $430,000 after just one year in the position, according to board minutes. Board President Ron Wallin said the increase was due to the decision to allow Telles to be both CEO and CFO, which, in retrospect, he said was a mistake.

Last fall, the Whidbey News-Times ran a story after the state Auditor’s Office issued two findings against the hospital for being two years behind in submitting complete and accurate financial reports and that the hospital doesn’t have adequate controls to prevent property from getting stolen.

Did the board take action and explain to the public how they were going to solve the mess?

Nope. Instead, Wallin, on the board’s behalf, wrote a letter to the editor complaining that the story “was factually correct, but incomplete and unfairly cast doubt on the work of our finance department and all the dedicated people who work in our hospital and clinics.” He also wrote that there had been no thefts and the state didn’t allege any, although the entire point of the finding was that the hospital and the state has no way of knowing that.

Four months later, the hospital hired an interim CFO to figure out what’s happening with the finances — but Telles’ pay remained the same. Last month, a representative brought in to audit described major errors in the hospital’s financial records and made it clear that the board had been relying on inaccurate information.

The board will likely turn to a management firm to run the hospital. More layoffs seem likely.

The hospital board’s history includes many controversies. Past CEOs left in nebulous fashion, the hospital paid the attorney’s fees for a former chief nursing officer accused of assaulting a patient, the former board president told a reporter that it was inappropriate to ask about the details of a CEO’s contract, and so on.

It’s clear that the board members need to be replaced in an orderly manner — except new member James Golder. The other board members are Wallin, Grethe Cammermeyer, Nancy Fey and Eric Anderson. None of the positions will be on the ballot this year.

While the board members have selflessly dedicated their time to what is essentially a volunteer position, change is needed to regain public trust and begin anew. This should be done in a way that minimizes chaos.

The tricky part may be finding people to take their places. Being a hospital commissioner is a very important position, but it’s a thankless job, or at least a job of little thanks. It’s an increasingly complicated position that corresponds with the ever-growing complexity of the health care system. And commissioners have to put up with endless streams of acronyms.

In the past, the board has had trouble finding candidates to take positions after someone resigns. Many times the Whidbey News-Times has urged people to run for the board whenever there’s an opening on the ballot, but incumbents routinely ran unopposed.

Hopefully, Golder’s win in the last election was a good omen. He ran against an incumbent Kurt Blankenship and won after saying staff was underpaid, the administration was overpaid and the finances had been mismanaged.

The good news for the hospital district is that it employs many fine doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who want to get the problems behind them. Voters passed a levy last November, which adds another $6 million to annual revenues. It’s time to rebuild.