Last year was a tumultuous year for the Kiowa County Hospital District (KCHD) as controversy and questionable board practices haunted the rural hospital district located in rural southeastern Colorado in the small town of Eads (Kiowa County), Colorado. By August of 2021 there were hard feelings, distrust and tight-lipped anger at every level of the hospital district from the hospital employees to the clinic employees to the EMT workers, the providers, the executive officers and even clear up to the board level. There was plenty of mudslinging, accusations and people throwing in the towel to go around, and it was coming from all corners of the organization. It’s what happens when leadership fails.
This anger and mistrust came to a tipping point at the January 3, 2022 special meeting called by the KCHD board of directors. After that meeting, attended by a large number of employees and just plain ol’ community folks who are all fearful the hospital will close and who took the time out of their evening to voice their concerns during the public comment section of the meeting, all hell (as we are prone to say at times) broke loose!
When the meeting ended, there was quickly talk of recalling members of the board and getting a committee together to run other citizens at the upcoming elections that will be held in May. At the conclusion of the meeting there was more confusion, more anger, more fear and more distrust than ever before, but within all that turmoil is the fact we still have one thing in common—and this is the key for the community to come out of this mess with brighter days ahead—there is no doubt not one person wants the hospital to close. Everyone, in whatever capacity held in this sordid tale, and the patients who need this hospital, are certainly on the same page about that one basic fact.
WE HAVE TO SAVE OUR HOSPITAL!
Let’s begin this tale with a timeline in order to help people understand what occurred throughout this difficult six-month period. This timeline will reveal poor communication coming from the KCHD board and administration, but it will reveal that in the end these same individuals are still working very hard to right the ship while facing an atmosphere of strong criticism and distrust, and even in one case, vandalism.
There are a couple of other truths that need to be explained that has caused even more confusion and hard feelings within the district. That is the fact that the KCHD board organization has been “illegal” for at least 20 years per the Colorado Statutes on the formation and governance of special tax districts—which the KCHD is.
In a phone interview board chairman Craig Kerfoot stated, “Our lawyers informed us last summer that our board organization is not legal as it includes a long-standing understanding that the board consisted of five (5) elected officials and 5 appointed officials. These appointments came from the Kiowa County Board of Commissioners (BOCC) since 1963 when the hospital became a special tax district voted upon by the people.”
In a compromise that would cause plenty of confusion in 2021 and 2022, the BOCC and the KCHD actually shared the property for nearly 50 years. Half of the old Weisbrod Hospital building is owned by the County and the other half is owned by the KCHD (a special tax district). Since they share tax funds and the building the County had representation from their board appointed members. One last caveat—the appointed (County) members could have only three of the five members vote on a given meeting and had to state at the beginning of each meeting who the voting County board members would be.
Yes, confusing, and I’ll leave that explanation here as getting into the history of this organization will be saved for another time. Kerfoot stated clearly, however, “Our lawyers changed our By-Laws in order to meet the legal standard of a Colorado Special Tax District. If we hadn’t made that move, we were being told we couldn’t get any funding from the state in grants and possibly other benefits. We were the only special tax district in the state who had this type of organization.” Keep that statement in mind as we move into our timeline.
In August of 2021 a lot of the hard feelings from many of the KCHD employees were at a boiling point and the KCHD board knew they had to do something to figure out what was going on and what the core problems were. The board, against the advice of then CEO Charlene Korrell decided to bring the Pathways Design Group, a management company for rural hospitals, in to spend a few days at the hospital and clinic in order to conduct a survey of the personnel.
The Pathways Design Group had an excellent reputation coming into the district as they had been hired by Keefe Memorial Hospital in neighboring Cheyenne Wells a year prior and they had evidently done an outstanding job of managing that hospital district. A number of interviews conducted by the Independent with people associated with Keefe Memorial confirmed a positive performance from Pathways Design Group.
For whatever reasons, the employees took the opportunity of the survey to tell their truths and state their concerns—concerns they had never felt they could say before—to PDG. The employees went so far as to write a letter to the KCHD board at their September 2021 meeting begging them to hire Pathways to come in and manage the district. They stated, “There are so many issues we face, and we have confidence Pathways can address these and get us on the right track. To that end, most of us have been more than truthful and forthright with the hope that we will not pay for our honesty if Pathways is not hired by the KCHD board.”
At the September 2021 meeting the board voted to bring Pathways on a very limited basis as they were concerned about the cost to the district, but they felt a small window of time would give the answers they needed as it pertained to Pathways. Unfortunately, this is where communication began to falter, and people started drawing territorial lines as it was not communicated to the staff that the board had indeed listened to their concerns and were willing to look at the PDG services. With nothing communicated to the staff, hard feelings began to emerge as employees were certain they would now have a target on their back for being truthful.
And then the straw broke the camel’s back at the October 2021 meeting. Long time provider Michael Archer suddenly quit with no one knowing it was coming, although it has come to light that he had informed CEO Korrell a measurable amount of time before the day he resigned. It came, nevertheless, as a shock to the entire community and the hospital personnel and they showed up in droves to loudly voice their concerns as to why yet a third provider in less than a year has quit the district.
That meeting was contentious and when the KCHD board came back into regular session after negotiating with Pathways Design Group, they eventually voted 6-1 to hire PDG—they also voted unanimously to put CEO Korrell on administrative leave until December. The fallout was immediate as Korrell resigned, Chief of Staff David Lenderts resigned in protest to the board’s move on Korrell, Brenda Smith resigned (was already in the process of resigning) as clinic manager and past board chairman Sylvia Shields resigned her elected position.
Nevertheless, the board directed chairman Kerfoot to execute the contract with Pathways Design Group. The employees were told PDG would arrive on November 8th. However, the 8th came and went, and the contract was not executed. Kerfoot says the contract was still at the lawyers when early in November, without a contract and no communication, Pathways backed out stating they felt there was not board consensus nor enough communication to move forward, although they would entertain more discussion if needed.
Kerfoot contends the contract was still ongoing and they never took Pathways off the table—although he and district board members Kevin Davis and Mary Eikner were enough concerned about Pathways that they tried to bring in Centura, a corporate health group that does somewhat the same work Pathways was going to provide. The board showed division in a special meeting on November 10, 2021 where at least one elected board member was not present leaving two failed motions, Centura (failed in a 3-3 vote) and Pathways (failed in a 3-3 vote.) The actions of the board were confusing as Pathways was still on the table for consideration at that point. This, of course, caused more anger, confusion and distrust among community members and district employees.
With Pathways Design Group services still on the table at the regularly scheduled November 23, 2021 meeting the board voted again to bring Pathways on board in a 5-3 vote. At that meeting, district board member Claire Prince made a motion that directed Kerfoot and board member Ken Flory to act as a committee in order to execute the Pathways contract.
Also at that November 23, 2021 meeting the By-Laws with the new board organization were voted on and approved leaving the County board members out of voting although it is believed they may have voted in the December 14, 2021 budget approval meeting. Again, lack of communication and clarification has caused these issues the board now faces.
Finally came the January 3 2022 special meeting where the KCHD board again was subjected to a number of angry comments from community and hospital personnel. This meeting was called to discuss negotiations again with PDG as the board went into executive session in order to negotiate with Pathways. The crowd stayed while the executive session was going on and went back in when the board was ready to vote.
Although, Kerfoot doesn’t think what happened next is problematic, the next action item was stated by Davis who jumped over the Pathways question and made a left field motion to hire an Interim CEO for the hospital. There was a second by Eikner and the three, Kerfoot, Davis and Eikner voted affirmative. The kicker was that the County side of the board was no longer able to vote due to the passing of the new By-Laws in November and the fact that the MOU with the County had expired on December 31, 2021 according to a statement made by Tina Adamson, BOCC administrative assistant. The vote passed to hire an interim CEO in a vote of 3-2.
The people were confused, and some wondered out loud what had happened to Pathways? Were they hired or not? At that point, Prince made a motion to finalize the contract with Pathways Design Group that was negotiated in the executive session. Flory seconded the motion and Kerfoot took it to a vote. It failed 3-2.
Some wondered why the rest of the board, the County members didn’t vote. It seemed unfair that they could easily change a plan that had been in the works virtually since August of 2021. Kerfoot says, “The vote was correct because the board is only a district board now.”
But Kerfoot is standing strong on this decision saying, “It became clear that PDG would not be able to actually get to the district before the end of January or first part of February because their personnel was spread too thin. It was my opinion that it would be too late to help the district jump start again. Hiring an interim CEO for a few months, not to exceed six months by state law, will allow us to take advantage of the Colorado Hospital Association’s vast services. According to Benjamin Anderson with CHA all the candidates coming our way are top-notch. We’ll hopefully be interviewing sometime this week.”
Davis too talked with the Independent about his motion and vote to instead hire an Interim CEO over PDG, “That vote on Monday night was the most sure I have been during this process.” Davis went on to give the Independent a statement about his concerns with continuing on with PDG, “There was confusion with the services PDG was offering and the cost of those services changed with every interaction we had with them. We are a smaller hospital than Cheyenne Wells and there was concern if we could afford them. I was not willing to ask the taxpayers to pay for something that I was so unsure of. I know there are those that say how great PDG has been for Keefe Memorial, but everyone needs to keep in mind there are no two situations the same.”
Both Davis and Kerfoot emphasized in their interviews, “Everyone on the board knows how important that hospital is to the community, and all are committed to making it the best hospital it can be.”
Prince agrees with the importance of the hospital to the community, but still believe Pathways Design Group was the best option, despite it’s cost because, “The employees believed in them and had hope. They saw how effective and positive they were in Cheyenne Wells and wanted the same for our district. I am committed to continuing to fight for our district and to find the best services that will make this hospital not only effective but a joy to work in.”
And that may be about all we can hope for now as the Linden Group, specifically Angela Linden, was hired until the third week of January. According to Kerfoot, she has not taken the CEO role, but instead has been instrumental in assisting the various departments in order to have them ready for the transition. Although there was some concern that there was a conflict of interest with Linden’s presence in the district, Kerfoot and Davis both explained, “The Linden Group is a consulting firm, not a management firm and is only assisting until CHA helps us find the Interim CEO.”
So, although everyone is a little bit at fault with what has happened during these tumultuous six months, it is clear that everyone is also trying to right the ship and start sailing into the sunlight and perhaps maybe a very positive future. It’s time to come together to support our new providers and the new interim CEO. And, if you still don’t like what you’re seeing with the board, well May 2022 is just around the corner.