When Bernard Wheatley talks about health care, his passion is palpable.
As chief executive officer of Schneider Regional Medical Center for the last nearly seven years, Wheatley has proven his mettle through two back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes, a governor who sought to raze the hospital’s entire physical plant and an extended front page saga of malfeasance, embezzlement and fraud perpetrated by Wheatley’s predecessor and his cohorts that ended just last month in jail sentences and massive fines.
“I have a passion for excellence,” Wheatley said in an exit interview this week. “I trained under some of the great CEOs.” They instilled in him the notion that people deserve the best health care available.
Wheatley’s singleness of purpose has gotten the 71-year-old through the 15 to 17 hour days while on call seven days a week, as he put Schneider Regional back together with the help of other hospital executives.
“In my career, this is all I have done, run institutions.” Born in the Virgin Islands, Wheatley started out as a radiologic technologist , but soon after graduating from college, knew that was not his calling. So, he went back to school to become a health care administrator. With his doctorate under his belt he has done that work ever since. His longest stint directly before coming back home was 18 years as vice president of operations at Athens Regional Medical Center in Athens, Georgia.
There was no way of knowing when he returned to the territory and started working at the hospital in March 2013 what he would face. Sure, the hospital was under siege after the Inspector General exposed the dirty underbelly of the Rodney Miller administration. And yes, the hospital had operated in the red for years on the backs of the V.I. Water and Power Authority and its vendors.
But no one could have predicted the visitation of Irma and then less than two weeks later Maria.
Two years before the storms of 2017, SRMC was dealing with an $8 million shortfall. As this chapter of his life comes to a close, Wheatley has left the hospital $5 million in the black. How?
“We ratcheted down on collections and billing cycles while aggressively pursuing $6.4 million in retro claims,” Wheatley said. “You have to do your due diligence,” he said, which meant going after everything that is billable. He did that by upping the expectations and professionalism of the staff – especially the coders.
The hospital got some FEMA reimbursement funds to replace operating funds SRMC had used on temporary repairs after the storm. But mostly it was the change in processes and the financial team that moved the bottom line into the black in the last year.
The Other Battle
Along with the unprecedented hurricane force winds, which devastated the fourth floor and the administrative offices on the second floor, then-Gov. Kenneth Mapp was hellbent on leveling the hospital and the relatively newly constructed Charlotte Kimmelman Cancer Center and raising new, shiny structures from the metaphorical ashes.
But Wheatley and Vice President of Facilities Operations Darryl Smalls were equally determined that that was not necessary. Wheatley held his ground and went forward bringing the hospital and its services back online to the best of his ability in record time while he and Smalls awaited assessments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as to the best course of action.
He explained this week that it is not standard operating procedure for hospitals to be demolished and rebuilt. “Instead you reconstruct them. You do interior and exterior enhancements and you have a new facility,” Wheatley said. When a building’s structure is still sound it makes no sense to tear it down.
“I didn’t wait to see what was going to happen,” he said. Wheatley said he believes that first-class health care is the most important component of a community. Because of that strongly held conviction, and with the help of then-Chief Medical Officer Dr. Luis Amaro, the man who will step fully into Wheatley’s position the end of the month, the hospital was running full services just 10 months after the storms.
Clearly there is more work to be done. The former administrative offices are not yet back online. But the fourth floor rooms are fully operational again and have been since four or five months after the storms rendered them uninhabitable.
Of much greater current concern to Wheatley is the lack of a state-of-the-art cath lab, properly updated cardiac equipment and a full-time interventional cardiologist.While the hospital has a cardiologist on staff, an interventional cardiologist, trained to put in stents and perform other surgical interventions, is only available part-time.
Wheatley said the standard life span for medical equipment is five years. What Schneider hospital is dealing with is equipment that is at least 10 years old. His frustration with some of the setbacks, lack of understanding and the slow process was in his voice. “When people used to ask me why we needed two cardiac units, [referring to a new cardiac facility built at Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix many years ago, that is no longer functional] I ask them if they know you have 90 minutes after a heart attack without medical intervention before you die.”
Without a full-time interventional cardiologist patients can only be medicated and airlifted out after a cardiac incident.
“There’s nobody to put in a stint or pacemaker,” in those crucial 90 minutes. “These are the things the people of the Virgin Islands should be demanding of their government.”
Wheatley does not understand why politicians do not understand the importance of the health care system. He admitted that, though it was perfectly within the law to do so, when WAPA and other non-health-related institutions were the main recipients of a $39 million Medicaid payment to the territory, it was the last straw for him. “That’s what made me finally decide to retire.”
The reimbursement was for services provided solely by the hospital. In fairness, $10.5 million went to pay old WAPA bills owed by Schneider Hospital and Community Health Center, but only $1.4 million and $1.5 million went back to the hospital for vendor payments and negotiated salary increases; both things close to his heart, leaving $26 million to pay non-SRMC related bills.
Coming close to payless paydays on his watch, he said, was the darkest time during his tenure; the other was that the hospital survived by not paying its vendors.
As he looks toward the future, he sees many options. As a well-known and respected public speaker, he has been asked by Becker’s Hospital Review to consider their speakers circuit. Several of his CEO colleagues suggested he consider standing in here and there as an interim CEO. He has also been asked to consider a part-time or adjunct position at the University of Georgia.
No matter what he decides to do, it will not be in the Virgin Islands. For now, he will be found in Athens, where he owns a home.
While he feels he made some strides in the territory, he didn’t get the support he needed from the Legislature or Executive branch of the government. “We had different visions,” he said. “I felt the people of the Virgin Islands deserved more.”
Wheatley’s parting words: “A society is judged by its health care services, education system and the safety of its citizens.” He added, “America is the only country where health care isn’t a right.”
He hopes to see a day when it is.