Roy Exum: Erlanger’s Disgusting Fiasco

Sunday, December 9, 2012 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Some important members of the Erlanger Hospital Board of Trustees were caught completely off-guard during Thursday night’s monthly meeting when board chairman Ron Loving surprisingly announced the venue of the meeting – right then – would switch from the board room to nearby Probasco Auditorium in the beleaguered hospital.

As the somewhat bewildered group entered the new meeting place, there was a disgusting yet well-orchestrated rally awaiting them as supporters of Charlesetta Woodward-Thompson turned the board meeting into a virtual circus, complete with political campaign buttons bearing Charlesetta’s face, chairs reserved for her loud supporters, and the most blatant “race card” ever played in a Chattanooga political arena.

A clear and level mind cannot envision such a raucous affront to the board’s dignity and purpose but at Erlanger, where approximately $9.5 million was lost in the last fiscal year due to a sad and often inconceivable parade of mistakes and blunders, there is little that defies imagination. Erlanger Hospital, Chattanooga’s Level 1 trauma responder, continues to flounder for a lack of leadership and – what’s this – now they want to keep the fox in charge of the henhouse? Again, you can’t make this stuff up!

Erlanger’s downfall has resulted from years of inept management. When past CEO Jim Brexler was whisked away last December with a shiny $750,000 in severance pay, Charlesetta – one of his chief lieutenants and a longtime staff member – was pushed into an interim role and it was clear from the onset that she would not be considered in the search to renew vision and promise to Chattanooga’s largest medical provider.

A diligent committee was formed by the board to search for a new CEO and, as expected, some good candidates emerged to restore Erlanger as the area’s top hospital. Candidates view the job as challenging – not dismal – and insiders know that with good decisions and decisive leadership the legendary hospital can and will thrive indeed.

The largest mistake Woodward-Thompson made – eliminating good middle-management people with a ruthless sword in short-sighted fiscal cuts – soon became apparent when the Board of Trustees urgently scrambled to bring in Price-Waterhouse consultants who, for a considerable fee, have made suggestions, implemented new procedures, and instilled new programs in many areas, the most crucial in bringing back the physicians who the Brexler regime – including Charlesetta – drove away.

As the consultants have tackled the hospital’s hapless jig-saw puzzle, strides were soon made. A new $25 million surgical improvement was approved, which is good, but the fact it is the first capital-improvements venture in the last eight years is loathsome. Erlanger today is admittedly in a state of disrepair, with cries for new patient equipment, sorely-needed overall maintenance and a valid IT system paramount.

Sadly, Charlesetta Woodward-Thompson is today the hospital’s greatest burden. Making almost $500,000 a year, she is known to be a nice woman with ice-water veins. While pleasant and appealing on sight, the number of past employees she has “thrown under the bus” in less than a year is alarming. The most recent have been chief operating officer Lynn Whisman and medical director Cy Huffman, who just nine months ago were hand-appointed on her “team.” “She’ll do anything to save her own skin,” said one detractor, “but she’s the one who put those people in place. She has fired more people than any administrator you can remember.”

Now she seems determined to cling to her own job. Some board members say she has been assured of the new COO role, which should make any prospective CEO candidate balk. The best exit strategy might be to place her over the Community Health Centers, working at the behest of the Trustees rather than the new management team, and remove her from daily operations.

Regardless, if Erlanger is to have any chance Charlesetta Woodward-Thompson needs to be completely removed. No functioning company in America would dare keep a member of a failed regime in place; it impedes the progress promised to the new team. Can you imagine a college football team, a Fortune 500 corporation, or any other successful business making such a huge blunder?

The Board of Trustees has three viable finalists and, quite frankly, action needs to be taken quickly. Erlanger’s competition in the Chattanooga market is at full bore. Memorial Hospital, which is run by the Catholic church out of Denver, funnels millions of Chattanooga dollars every year out of the area and, now with well over $300 million in capital improvements, is determined to finally wrestle away the “carriage trade” from Erlanger.

In short, Memorial wants to be “the hospital for the rich” while Erlanger will be “the hospital for the poor.” Memorial wants the paying customer, the insured, while shuffling the indigents at an alarming rate to Erlanger. In times of medical uncertainty and increasing government intervention, Memorial’s strategy is so obvious it is glaring and Erlanger’s indigent costs today are already overwhelming.

What’s worse is another scenario. Charlesetta’s circus rally Thursday night carried deep racial overtones. There were leaders from the black community thrust before the Trustees and some of the doctors who dared speak are actually hospital employees themselves, not in private practice, which certainly cheapens any honest dialogue. There have long been claims of a “black mafia” among longtime Erlanger employees and allegations of “reverse racism” must be quickly addressed and deterred.

Trustees chairman Ron Loving, who shamelessly led his fellow Trustees into Thursday’s rally, and Woodward-Thompson are both black, hardly a slap at either but possibly divisive in the national temperament of the day. And the fact Thursday’s rally was so overwhelmingly blatant in its racial makeup caused several board members to call the Thursday spectacle the worst thing Woodward-Thompson could have possibly done from a leadership standpoint.

The answer, of course, is for the Chattanooga delegation of the state legislature to press for “emergency” implementation of a 501c3 arrangement much like that which has made UT Hospital in Knoxville flourish. A 501c3 arrangement would quickly eliminate political and racial strife from the hospital’s governing body and greatly enhance the ability of a new management team to become proactive in today’s marketplace.

The hospital’s diagnosis is frighteningly clear. Never has leadership been needed as desperately. There are those who cry new management should be “local” but fail to compare it to what is best available. Erlanger is at a critical stage and for Loving to allow a circus to interfere at this juncture is ample reason for the Board of Trustees to have him removed from his chair.

The clear understanding has been from the beginning that the interim CEO was not to be considered by the search committee. There are a number of strong and valid reasons that Charlesetta Woodward-Thompson should have left Erlanger Hospital long ago but she stayed, according to a number of now-startled board members, for all the wrong reasons.

It is disappointing, but not all that surprising, we just witnessed one at this Thursday’s board meeting. You can’t just go out and buy those political campaign buttons – with your picture on them -- on a moment’s notice. It is, in a word, reprehensible. It must stop now.

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