A brief story in Saturday’s editions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press informed its readers that Dr. Cy Huffman had resigned on Friday from his position as Erlanger Hospital’s Chief Medical Officer. But on Saturday several other sources claimed that was not exactly true. They said the popular Dr. Hoffman was instead called to the office of CEO Charlesetta Woodward-Thompson Friday afternoon, was abruptly fired and, after being quickly relieved of his keys and cellphone, was then escorted from the building.
The second version makes more sense, especially to those who believed Dr. Huffman was the last visage of leadership and common sense at the largest hospital in Chattanooga. Thus far, Erlanger has lost $17.2 million this fiscal year and the immediate future looks increasingly grim. One reason for the staggering losses is due to an exodus by staff physicians and news of Dr. Huffman’s sudden dismissal triggered new waves of paranoia -- over 150 Erlanger employees have been terminated since January.
Dr. Huffman, who had been on the Erlanger staff for four years, was thought to be part of an executive management “team” put in place after former CEO Jim Brexler exited in December but, quite obviously, that was not the case. The hospital’s Board of Trustees quietly lifted the “interim” status from Woodward-Thompson’s title several weeks ago and she, bolstered perhaps by Chief Operating Officer Lynn Whisman, struck quickly.
According to one source, several board members were surprised earlier in the week when Dr. Huffman, during a five-hour meeting, hinted that some numbers he would reveal later in May would be quite troubling and show the embattled hospital is in far worse condition that was thought when $4.1 million in losses – the largest this year -- were reflected in the most-recent monthly financial report.
Dr. Huffman, a respected Christian with sound principles, was also the hospital’s Chief Quality Officer and is said to have turned down a lucrative job offer in the past year in order to help Erlanger regain its footing and put more emphasis on the Community Health Centers. But when the Board of Trustees approved handsome pay raises for both Woodward-Thompson and Whisman, Dr. Huffman was given no additional compensation despite the fact his responsibilities were increased.
Two weeks ago the floundering management team received permission from its Board of Trustees to hire outside consultants to guide Erlanger out of its doldrums but Huffman’s departure couldn’t come at a worse time. As Woodward-Thompson herself admitted, "We are not seeing the physicians return. We are finding that the feelings were a lot deeper than we assumed. We've got to do a lot more to get our physicians to come back."
With surgical inpatients down 10 percent and admissions continuing to drop, some physicians were furious after Dr. Huffman’s dismissal and vowed a quick protest. Others said that recent changes implemented toward in-house physicians by Dr. Huffman were unpopular but admitted he was indeed part of the team-based concept of management that has seen the hospital flounder badly in the past five months.
Dr. Huffman’s ouster will also present a problem to the committee just formed that will hire a new CEO. With more local doctors reluctant to practice at Erlanger and both Memorial and Parkridge successfully drawing away top-tier patients, not many quality hospital executives will be lured to a poorly-performing public hospital with increasing indigent costs.
Dr. Huffman, with his impressive credentials and sterling reputation, will most assuredly land on his feet, as have many of the supervisors and medical staff who Erlanger fired earlier this year. The perplexing problem is that Erlanger has out-sourced some departments, such as information technology, to the point they can no longer function without outside support.
Further, the Board of Trustees will undergo a drastic change once an updated selection process is put into place. It has become apparent that some trustees, appointed by brash cronyism, are hardly suited for the board. The $17.1 million in losses, the handling of Brexler’s termination, and the physicians’ mounting distaste for the hospital administration appears to be ample proof of poor oversight.
The CEO search is further clouded, as some feel that with potential disaster now looming, perhaps the huge Erlanger complex and its satellites should instead be sold to some giant consortium that could hopefully fix it. A large group could provide proven leadership, ample equipment and purchasing power, proper supervision and promising opportunities that would draw back the physicians who generate money with elective medical procedures.
One thing is for certain – Dr. Huffman’s exit couldn’t come at a worse time. It is hard to gauge which is worse – staff morale, public perception or a positive forecast. All three are essential to any organization and the fact the so-called “team” just fired one key member who “never saw it coming” may indicate the worst instability in leadership in recent years.
Insiders claim Dr. Huffman found himself increasingly at odds with Woodward-Thompson and Whisman and, during the meeting earlier this week at the Volkswagen facility, Dr. Huffman somewhat bravely hinted that information he would present to the Board of Trustees later this month would provide a bleak picture of the hospital and its efforts. Was he fired in the same week to shut him up?
At the last monthly board meeting, Woodward-Thompson was quoted as saying, "We don't have a lot of time to get this turned around. We're kind of on that leg - where we make it" or falter, but in an emailed announcement of Huffman’s dismissal, she wrote, "I plan to name an interim (Chief Medical Officer) in the next few days. Erlanger will continue to remain strongly focused on physician relationships and physician engagement, as well as quality initiatives.”
Strangely, it seems to me that “physician relationships and physician engagement” just took another hard blow to the head.