Murray County Medical Center still at the center of controversy

SLAYTON?- The Murray County Medical Center board of directors as promised made itself available to the public for questions on Tuesday night and enlisted the services of a moderator to try and keep the event civil.

Outside the meeting, organizers of a petition drive sought signatures for a petition asking the board to sever the MCMC management agreement with Sanford Health and enter into an agreement with Avera, leaving Michael Rich, director of the Southwest Minnesota State University Marketing Advisory Center and a member of the board of directors of Avera Marshall, in the position of defending Sanford.

The Medical Center has been the center of controversy for about a year-and-a-half – a controversy that led to a number of resignations of hospital staff, culminating in the resignation of CEO Mel Snow, which was confirmed by the board at its regular meeting on Tuesday.

“It’s good to be with you this evening, I think,” said Rich. “The main purpose of this meeting is to try and get some clarification.”

After a presentation on the financial state of the center, Rich opened the floor to questions from the audience. Rich told the audience to cite facts, avoid personal attacks and promised to make note of questions that couldn’t be answered for further inquiry.

One questioner began by asking for a show of hands from people who have used the center within the past five years. Almost all hands went up.

Then the questioner asked who was taking their health needs elsewhere, after which roughly half the number of hands went up.

Rich responded by asking for comments from audience members as to why they were leaving.

Responses included former patients of MCMC were leaving to follow care providers who left to work for other institutions, some for Avera.

“I sit on the board of Avera,” Rich said, “and I’m telling you Avera is not going to step in and pick up the spoils of war. We don’t do that. Getting employees to come back is a separate issue.”

Another questioner asked if the board was willing to bring in outside mediators to investigate an alleged hostile work environment. One questioner claimed nine employees had resigned that morning.

“Please keep in mind this is a two-edged sword,” Rich said, and suggested a hostile work environment could also be caused by pressure from the community.

This was met by jeers from the audience.

“It is a very hostile work environment,” said Stacy Slettem, a nurse who recently resigned from MCMC. “And it is inside, not outside. Sanford is not managing well.”

Commenting on another question as to whether any exist interviews had been conducted with employees who left, Slettem said she had asked for an exit interview.

“But what do you do if the people doing the interview are part of the problem?” Slettem asked. “There is nobody to go to who will listen.”

After a lot of give-and-take accompanied by jeers, applause and comments from the crowd, Rich said, “This meeting started out cordial and has gone downhill. Do you people want to carry on a civilized conversation in a civilized manner or not? You’ve lost physician assistants and nurses, but you have an excellent base of doctors – but doctors won’t put up with community upheaval, and there is an acute physician shortage in this country. You can boo me if you like but if we can’t move forward, you won’t have a hospital in two years.”

At the center of the controversy was the question of why the board had approved a seven-year extension of Snow’s contract while he was the subject of a lawsuit by a physician’s assistant formerly employed by MCMC. A contract the board had to buy Snow out of for a reported $400,000 to $500,000.

Each member of the board replied in turn. James Jens summed up the sentiment of several board members saying they realized, perhaps late, that Snow had to go for the community to move forward and the advice of their lawyers was they could not fire Snow for cause, and a lawsuit would have cost three to four times as much as the severance package.

After more complaints from staff about a bullying atmosphere and from patients about inadequate service, Rich suggested a way for the public to input their problems.

“We’re willing to move forward if you’re willing to send in comments,” Rich said. “Logical, factual, unemotional comments. We’ll set up focus groups to find out what the community wants free of bias.”

Rich said comments could be sent via email to smac@smsu.edu and cautioned they would protect the anonymity of commenters on request but would not consider anonymous comments.