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Hospital professes desire to improve ties with district

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN (Week of March 27, 2014)

Indian River Medical Center CEO Jeff Susi last week appeared before a meeting of Hospital District Trustees, publicly acknowledged growing stress between hospital leadership and the elected entity representing taxpayers, and said he wanted to do something about it.

“We look forward to growing and mending our relationship,” Susi told trustees before addressing several issues they have said are of major importance to them.

The issues are the hiring of a new hospital chief operating officer and finding ways to decrease the skyrocketing bills the Hospital District pays the hospital for indigent patients who seek care at the Emergency Department. 

Susi said the hospital had three final candidates for chief operating officer – a position that has been vacant since last summer – and described them as “very strong choices.” On the subject of decreasing the ED bills for indigent patients, he said he hoped the District and hospital “could plan together a better way to care for them.”

The CEO’s make-nice offer last Thursday came minutes after District trustees voiced alarm over a dramatic rise in indigent patients at the IRMC Emergency Department at a time when other area hospitals are not seeing a similar spike in indigent patients.

“We are puzzled, quite frankly. We have talked to other hospitals in the area and this is not a trend,” District treasurer Trevor Smith said.

Administrators from six area hospitals – Lawnwood, Holmes, St. Lucie, Raulerson, Martin Memorial and Sebastian – told the Hospital District, Vero Beach 32963 and at least one hospital board member that they had not seen a significant increase in ED indigent numbers from 2013 to 2014.

At Indian River this year, the numbers have increased 121 percent. 

It was the voicing of concerns like this, which relate to the Hospital District’s responsibility to taxpayers, that had provoked hospital leaders to criticize District trustees for causing the “growing stress” to which Susi referred.

The day before at a smaller District meeting, when trustee Burton Lee said he was “not rubber stamping the hospital administration” and would continue to ask questions, hospital board member Hugh McCrystal took issue: “This has turned into a negative board, and it’s hurting donations,” said McCrystal.

District trustee Gene Feinour responded: “We have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers. The hospital does wonderful things but it doesn’t mean there are not substantive issues that need to be resolved.”

The next day, after Susi spoke of restoring peace, hospital foundation board member Dr. Richard Milsten again blamed District trustees for disrupting it, saying their questions had “caused a lack of confidence in the medical center.” Milsten chastised District trustees for “causing a decrease in morale that has had a severe impact on philanthropic efforts.”

That reprimand did not sit well with District trustees, who said after the meeting that they plan to keep asking the necessary questions.

Susi told Vero Beach 32963 that he thought the hospital needed to “provide more information” to District trustees so that they would “have a better understanding” of the hospital.

”It is a very complex organization,” said Susi. 0

“I hope Jeff Susi sees it as his job to get us more information since he doesn’t think we understand the complexities of running a hospital,” said trustee Burton Lee, who was director of the lymphoma department at Memorial Sloan Kettering for 30 years, and chief of staff.

Hospital District chairman and radiologist Tom Spackman agreed. “It is incumbent upon hospital management and the board to make the complexities clear to trustees, if they don’t think we understand them,” said Spackman, former chairman of the radiology department at University of Connecticut and part of a team that turned around 30 failing hospitals across the U.S.