Sept. 11, 2008 — Restoring the public's faith in the leadership of Schneider Regional Medical Center (SRMC) and their ability to provide quality health care to the community were the main concerns for senators Thursday as they considered nominees recently tapped by the governor to fill five open slots on the V.I. Hospitals and Health Facilities Corp. St. Thomas-St. John district board.
After the release two months ago of a scathing federal and local audit on the hospital and its operations, Gov. John deJongh Jr. called for the resignation of five of SRMC's board members: June Adams, Beverly Chongasing, Francis Jackson, Natalie Thomas and Doradean Williams, all of whom were sitting on the board during the time covered in the audit.
Senators had no qualms Thursday in approving the nominees selected by deJongh to fill the board's new vacancies, but not before they hit the panel with a range of questions relating to the audit, including how they would safeguard against future corruption and get the medical center onto a more sound financial footing.
The audit, a joint effort by the offices of the Inspectors General of the Department of the Interior and the Virgin Islands, revealed that hospital Rodney E. Miller Sr., Amos Carty Jr., and Peter Najawicz received hefty compensation packages approved by board members. At the end of his five years at the helm of the hospital, Miller had allegedly racked up close to $3.8 million in salary and associated perks, while Carty and Najawicz were receiving thousands more than the $80,000 salaries included in their notices of personnel action — documents that show, among other things, what government employees were paid.
The hospital's board approved the packages, the report said, and deliberately withheld documents and other information from investigators while the audit was going on.
During Thursday's hearing, senators made their feelings about the audit clear early on, describing the former board members' behavior as "embarrassing."
"My number one pet peeve is that before, each district board also wanted to have their own kingdom — there was no relationship with their policies and the policies set territory-wide," said Senate President Usie R. Richards, whose statements prompted other senators to pepper the nominees with questions centering on the responsibilities of the St. Thomas-St. John District board.
The V.I. Hospitals and Health Facilities Corp., a 15-member body, is tasked with setting the overall policies for the territory's medical facilities and making sure those policies are implemented within each district by members of the St. Thomas-St. John and St. Croix governing boards. Since the release of the audit, concerns about whether the St. Thomas-St. John board was operating as a rogue agency instead of keeping up with mandates set by the territorial board have been widely discussed by both government officials and community members.
"It's important that board members not continue to micromanage operations," said Valdemar A. Hill Jr., whose nomination to serve on the St. Croix District's Board of Directors was unanimously approved by senators Thursday. "And of course, the board's fiduciary responsibilities should be a top priority — it's important that board members realize that they're there for the benefit and interest of the public and facility for which it's serving. There should be no opportunity for conflicts of interest."
Keeping health care affordable might mean getting back to basics and looking at what the hospitals can actually pay for, added Cornell Williams, whose nomination to the St. Thomas-St. John District Board of Directors sailed through the committee.
"Given the fact that most of the funds used for operations are public funds, the board has to ensure that those boards are being used properly," he said.
"That means holding the chief executive offer and other top executives responsible for delivering those core services under the operation of the hospital. But while the goal of offering comprehensive quality care throughout the districts is laudable — and I think board members should continue with that — with the limited financial resources that we have, we have to begin to chose and set priorities, making sure that we're give at least the basic, basic services without putting our patients in jeopardy."
Hiring an internal auditor or compliance officer that reports directly to the board — along with implementing the recommendations included in the joint audit — are a few key steps that would also go a long way in restoring the public's trust in the board and medical center leadership, nominees said.
"I think a good idea would be to conduct a performance audit, that shows exactly what's going right and what's going wrong with our hospitals," said attorney Maria Tankenson Hodge, whose nomination to serve on the St. Thomas-St. John District Board was also approved.
Most recently, the territorial board decided to fire both Carty and Najawicz, who were initially put on paid administrative leave after the audit was released. While the medical center currently has an interim chief executive officer and chief financial officer, board members will soon be tasked with making some permanent selections.
"We're going to be looking for someone highly qualified that's concerned about public welfare," Hodge said when asked by senators about the search for a new CEO. "But before the board strikes out to find the best person, the board needs to inform itself about what kind of qualities we need beyond the general."
Meanwhile, the board needs to lead by example, and keep itself transparent and honest, nominees said.
"We have to dare to speak up, have to dare to say 'hey that's wrong,'" Hill said. "We have to dare to lead by example. Oftentimes we're long on rhetoric but short on real action — we have to show that we're serious about what we're doing."
The board also needs to monitor itself, making sure its members stay focused instead of being distracted by other non-priority issues, he added.
"That's a good thing to say," Sen. Liston Davis said in response to Hill's comments. "Because if the board before had done that, we would not be here today. They did not statutorily exercise their responsibilities as they ought to, and that has led to the current embarrassing situation that we're facing. You will have your hands full, given what has transpired, and therefore your tenure on the board will be heavily scrutinized."
Also approved to the St. Thomas-St. John district's hospital board of directors were: Judith McDonald Richardson, Rodney Miles Stair and Vincent Samuel.
Senators also approved the nominations of Adlyn P. Williams to the V.I. Board of Vocational Education and Robert O'Connor Jr., nominated for another term on the V.I. Port Authority Board.
Present during Thursday's meeting were Davis, along with Sens. Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Louis P. Hill, Shawn-Michael Malone, Richards, James A. Weber III, Carmen M. Wesselhoft and Alvin L. Williams.
Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. was absent.
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