Roy Exum: An Activist At Erlanger

Friday, February 22, 2013
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I was surprised to learn a man who identifies himself to be a “community activist” has told the Hamilton County Commission he plans to file court injunctions accusing Erlanger Hospital trustees of violating the state’s “sunshine laws.” For what it’s worth, I also consider myself as an Erlanger “activist” sometimes and, while I have never before heard of one Patrick Kellogg, I can only imagine he has never heard of me either, which is all well and good.

What I really want to know about is the “who!” -- the person, or persons, who are behind Mr. Kellogg’s screwball effort to throw a wrench into the recent hiring of new CEO Kevin Spiegel and our activist’s puzzling efforts to stifle what will hopefully be a much-improved form of governance at our region’s largest health provider.

The impending changes at Erlanger are the result of many good people who have – and still are -- working hard to fix what now appears to be broken at the hospital and Kellogg’s sudden appearance is indeed mystifying.

According to an account in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Kellogg is a former hospital employee who is now working in the urban community to suppress gang activity. While he may well be working undercover or in some covert capacity, he is not readily recognized by the public as a local gang authority, yet, far more intriguing, Kellogg has not been any type of known “activist” in hospital circles during the last 18 months while the hospital’s bungling leadership has lost $13 million.

So as we grab our connect-the-dots kit to shed light on what might be Kellogg’s true reason to appear before the County Commission and his zealous move to confront Erlanger’s recent actions in the Chancery Court, a check of the “usual suspects” lends one scenario – as far-fetched as it may well be – that Kellogg’s effort may be a last-ditch attempt to keep certain hospital leadership in place before it will be inevitably replaced in the coming weeks.

If that is the case, it would be disappointing but hardly surprising. Kellogg, like interim CEO Charlesetta Woodard Thompson and current Board of Trustees Chairman Ron Loving, is an African-American, which is only of note because already a cadre of misguided black supporters have staged a shameful rally, of sorts, in a failed scheme of support for outgoing interim CEO Woodward-Thompson.

The rally, replete with a forced venue change by Chairman Loving during an actual board meeting, campaign-style buttons bearing Charlesetta’s photo, and loud cheers from several boisterous fans in attendance, shocked some of the hospital’s board members but – in fact -- Woodard-Thompson was never considered by the selection committee.

Woodard-Thompson’s tenure since former CEO Jim Brexler was fired in December 2011, has been disasterous; plagued with cruel layoffs, blatant firings, and questionable decisions, not to mention the millions in losses. It is widely-known a team of stone-faced consultants has made day-to-day decisions in more recent months, usurping not just the interim CEO but other ineffective executive leadership as well.

Despite this, Erlanger’s current trustees have worked quite diligently to abide by sunshine law restrictions and the fact Spiegel’s appointment was so quickly approved earlier this week (in just 16 minutes according to one source) was – let’s be honest –simply parliamentary and predictable. Please, the total process has taken over a year. What in the world does Kellogg, or those who would seemingly be pulling his strings, think that a working selection committee of board members does during such a crucial process and over such a length of time? Further, when the day to vote finally comes, pray tell what is left to discuss?

The total board has interviewed each finalist and, obviously, those considered for the CEO post have become so well-known to the trustees in the laborious process that a vote hardly merited additional public discussion. We are dealing with adults here and, while there was nothing done improperly, you can bet there were hours of one-on-one discussion, careful investigation and research by the different board members, all centered in an open and honest effort to select the best candidate.

There is an overwhelming belief Erlanger’s strict adherence to the sunshine laws has, in fact, hurt the hospital. Neither of Erlanger’s top competitors – Memorial Hospital or HCA Parkridge – are stifled with the requirement, which unfairly hampers everything from competition to revealing employment salaries, and key Erlanger leaders are hopeful that a 501c3 arrangement will soon free the Level 1 trauma center from what is acknowledged to be a thorn in Erlanger’s efforts to best function.

I believe for Kellogg to imply willful transgressions of the sunshine law were committed by the board of trustees can easily be proven as untrue. At the same time, for anyone to be so naive that the daily operations of a 4,000-employee enterprise don’t require informational briefings and legal discussions – as permitted by law – is also quite unreasonable.

To be honest, anyone who would dare think the main topics of daily conversation at Erlanger would not be the areas of biggest concern would have to be living under a rock. Are you kidding? The tragic fiscal losses, the efforts by the local delegation of the state legislature to “fix” the hospital leadership, and the replacement of the board itself might well be the only things the leaders talk about in casual conversation.

There is a determined effort to right the Baroness and, despite whatever may be Kellogg’s true motives, the belief here is that any Chancery Court judge can quickly identify that. What is much harder to deduce – even among the most skilled and prudent jurists – is from “Where” does the activist Kellogg suddenly appear? “Why” would he burden the Chancery Court with requests for injunctions? “Who” of all the players could possibility benefit? And “When” is this headache going to finally end.

Kellogg’s draft calls for transparency, his threats of injunctions and time-consuming rush before the County Commission, certainly don’t help the process or better the institution. So those who have watched since Brexler’s ouster and realize the fiscal losses can never be recovered are left only to wonder “Why?” 

As any good detective might surmise, find the motive and you can touch the cash. In any good game of connect-the-dots, always follow the money.

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