The August 10, 2015 Fort Bragg City Council meeting offered plenty within its agenda to pique the interest of the citizenry. Unfortunately less than ten showed up, fewer than a handful stayed for most of the subject matter, including the adoption of a resolution declaring a Stage 1 water emergency for the town. With so little tangible interest paid to the civic matters at hand, it seemed somewhat ironic that Councilman Lindy Peters proposed that city staff provide a report giving direction as to how the council might go about putting the concept of excluding social services from Fort Bragg's central business district on the ballot in California's June, 2016 primary election. A drive to gather enough valid signatures for just such an exclusionary initiative recently fell one signature short of qualifying for a yea or nay ballot vote.
There were only two brief public comments concerning this proposed initiative to ban social services from the downtown business district, Rex Gressett in favor and Scott Menzies vehemently opposed. Both left the premises relatively soon thereafter. The audience quickly dwindled to two members of Mayor Turner's family, lifelong Fort Bragg resident Jay McMartin-Rosenquist, and yours truly. While Ms. McMartin-Rosenquist remained silent at the City Council gathering, she did offer her opinion online some time later: "Did you hear Scott's [Menzies] comments re the initiative. He is a new comer. They use to run them all out of town. I was born and raised here and so were many. Support the locals who built this town and enjoyit as yu decided to live here but I am tired of others telling us what to do and how to act. Go home to where you came from and tell your home town folks how to walk , talk and behave. Sorry my rant for the night."
Just how definitively Ms. McMartin-Rosenquist's words reflect others who are signatories to the potential initiative barring social services from the downtown area of Mendocino County's second largest municipality remains to be seen. On the Facebook page where her remarks appeared the next comment was, "yeah... new guy with personal ties to the old coast project via thai chi classes called all of us bigots...."
Joe Wagner, who offered the preceding comment had earlier offered his thoughts on why so few locals are attending recent council meetings, "Many people feel really shut down by the city. i talk to many in this group and i keep hearing i'm done with those stupid meetings.... they don't listen to anything the public has to say..."
Those fixated, yea or nay, on the possibility of privatized mental health services being offered up at the Old Coast Hotel site on the corner of Oak and Franklin Streets are missing out on a story that has slithered through the weeds in Fort Bragg for years now. That story centers around the financial woes of the Mendocino Coast District Hospital (MCDH).
There was some consternation a month ago about the raise, approved by the city council, given to Fort Bragg's City Manager, Linda Ruffing. Most reliable sources report that said raise was actually below the statewide COLA (cost of living average). While Ruffing's annual pay is in the $150,000 - $180,000 range, the new Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at Mendocino Coast District Hospital (MCDH), Bob Edwards, is being paid $320,000 yearly, plus benefits.
MCDH board meetings are primarily attended by hospital staff, with extremely little participation from the general public. Many readers will need a little backstory: MCDH, though it theoretically came out of bankruptcy earlier this year is still operating, month to month, just above and sometimes below the break even point. Unexpected costs have a way of continually popping up for the administration of this outfit.
In a similar vein, the deadline for negotiating with the hospital's union employees came and went at the end of June without action from the hospital's board or new CEO Edwards. It took a full month longer for the hospital board and/or CEO to come up with a proposal for the employee's union. As we write and read union members are voting on that proposal by mail-in ballots. Results will be announced on August 20th.
An item that would have appeared run-of-the-mill ordinary, negotiations for new contracts for four mainstay physicians at North Coast Family Health Center (NCFHC), the hospital affiliated clinic just across the parking lot from MCDH, has turned into a brouhaha.
The four physicians in question at NCFHC are Jason Kirkman, John Cottle, Jennifer Kreger, and Diane Harris. According to sources fairly close to the situation the four physicians were offered "take it or leave it" contracts that did not include the usually standard malpractice tail coverage. Tail coverage provides insurance for a doctor for several years following their tenure at a medical facility, protection for after the fact lawsuits alleging malpractice. Leaving such a basic clause out of a contract offer could be viewed as a professional slap in the face.
Apparently, Dr. Kirkman signed the proposed new contract, reportedly with some sort of statement indicating, 'Heck, contracts don't mean all that much around here.' Indeed, the lack of properly signed contracts has cost MCDH muy dinero in billing dollars during the last two administrations.
Drs. Cottle and Kreger were the subject of an emergency MCDH board of directors meeting on July 30th. The focus of the meeting: a two month extension in the negotiating process between MCDH and Drs. Kreger and Cottle.
This leads us to the August 11th Fort Bragg City Council meeting. In the agenda section entitled, "Matters From Councilmembers" Councilman Doug Hammerstrom, who is the husband of Dr. Diane Harris, made the following statement: "North Coast Family Health Center [NCFHC] has been putting out a great deal of misinformation. Some of you patients have contacted Diane, worried about her because of the information you were hearing, worried about North Coast Family Health terminating Diane's contract.
“First, it is not true, as patients have been told, that she has taken a medical leave. She does not have a medical issue. You do not need to worry about her health. Patients have also called because the information they've been told makes no sense and they think there must be some other story, and worried that Diane has some unknown problem. Diane is not having some unspeakable problem.
“The reason you are being misinformed is a smoke screen by North Coast Family Health Center. They do not want to tell you the truth that two days before the end of her contract term, they [NCFHC] informed her they would no longer negotiate the renewal of her contract. The next day at a [Mendocino Coast District Hospital - MCDH] board meeting two other [NCFHC] doctors had their contract terms extended two months to continue negotiating renewal of their contract terms.
“Diane asked the [MCDH]board to take the same action on her negotiations, but that request was declined. Diane would not have terminated her relationship with her patients in this sudden way. The suddenness is a result of being involuntarily terminated by North Coast Family Health Center.
“Diane loves being a doctor. She enjoys her relationship with her patients, some of those relationships are twenty-three years in duration. She feels a responsibility to her patients, and feels at this time that she is letting them down. She is seeking to find another situation in this community where she can continue her relationships with her patients.
“If you are concerned about her treatment you can write a letter to the [MCDH] board. There is a board meeting on Thursday, August 20th [actually Aug. 27th], at 6 p.m., in the Redwoods Room [of MCDH]. You could attend and speak to the issue at that meeting, perhaps on non-agenda items, perhaps there might be an agenda item that might involve it.
“On her behalf I wanted to take this opportunity that I have to speak to the community to attempt to get the word out to at least some of her patients who my have heard the same worrying information that has caused people to call her with these worries.”
This writer called Mendocino Coast District Hospital CEO Bob Edwards on August 11th in an attempt to garner his side of the story. An assistant answered the phone and said she would try to get Edwards to return the call later on the 11th or the morning of August 12th.
I also called Ilona Horton, the adminstrator for North Coast Family Health. She sounded somewhat startled to hear that I was in the midst of writing a piece about the contract offers to the four NCFHC physicians. She stated that she would have to consult with a public relations person before making any comment. About a half hour later Horton called back to say that "we" will be sending an email response within a couple of hours. Half of the following day came and went without the promised email. Follow up calls to Ilona Horton's office produced only voicemail. I left a reminder message that no email had been forthcoming, including a slowly spelled out repetition of the email address and my phone number. An hour later I called Bob Edwards' office. The assistant answered again. Her response was that their PR guy, Sid Garza, was supposed to have already sent me said email. Fifteen or twenty minutes later the CEO's assistant called back to say "they" were working on an email response and that I should receive it within a few minutes.
Is there anything in this list of obfuscations that would make readers believe the powers that be at MCDH and North Coast Family Health over Dr. Harris or her husband's comments at the City Council meeting?
How was the decision to decline a contract renewal to Dr. Harris made by the hospital? The closest thing to clear evidence lies in the July 16th MCDH Board of Directors agenda and minutes. Under "Action" items: Mr. Hogan [Board Chairman Sean Hogan] would like to appoint two Board members to review physician contracts with Bob Edwards; they can make a presentation to the Board and suggest the Board either accept or reject the contracts without the Board having to hear all the details of the contracts. Discussion ensued. Mr. Hogan appointed Dr. Glusker and Tom Birdsell to the Physician Contract Review Ad Hoc Committee.
This implies Edwards was in charge of making the contract offers to NCFHC physicians Kirkman, Kreger, Cottle, and Harris. How much input Dr. Glusker and Mr. Birdsell had in the makeup of said contract offers remains to be seen. How much needs to be read into the phrase "without the Board having to hear all the details of the contracts" is still open to interpretation.
Finally, the promised email arrived in my inbox, signed by a Sid Garza-Hillman. Beneath his name are the descriptive terms: Writer. Podcaster. Speaker. Health Coach.
Here is the email response Mr. Garza-Hillman offered up, with the heading, Mendocino Coast District Hospital August 12, 2015: ""Regarding the recent physician contract renewal, MCDH believes the most responsible course of action is to present the facts as documented in the Hospital Board meeting minutes in hopes of minimizing misperceptions and false rumors. Four primary care physician contracts were due for renewal by July 31, 2015. A boilerplate agreement was presented to the hospital board on May 28, at which time the Board requested additional information. On June 25, the Board approved the agreement. Following the Board approval, the four physicians acted in the following ways. One physician signed the new agreement on July 31. One physician did not wish to sign the agreement, thus allowing her existing contract to expire on July 31. Two physicians signed extensions to the agreement, wishing to continue their work while receiving more time to review the new agreement. We ask that the public contact the hospital directly with any concerns or questions they may have about the conflicting reports currently surfacing in local media."
A glaring miscalculation in chronology exists in this email: The email claims that MCDH's Board of Directors had the finalized physician contract proposal on June 25th, yet this same board made no effort to put together a physicians' contract review team until the July 16th meeting. What kind of board waits until two weeks before contracts are up to start to put together a contract review team?
The email claims that one physician (Dr. Harris) did not wish to sign the contract agreement. This flies in the face of the public testimony of Dr. Harris' spouse, ten year city councilman Doug Hammerstrom, as well as the words of Dr. Diane Harris herself who has publicly stated that the contract was offered up for her signature without the opportunity to fully read it first. Dr. Harris further stated that when she asked for the same treatment as Drs. Cottle and Kreger, a two month extension in negotitaions, she was flatly denied that opportunity. The MCDH's PR man's email disingenuously omits the short notice, the lack of tail coverage, as well as Dr. Harris' request to be treated in the same manner as her colleagues, Drs. Cottle and Kreger.
Mr. Garza-Hillman offered the quotation marks in the email on behalf of MCDH. Precisely which individual in a position of authority is being quoted remains distinctly obscure. And this is a huge part of the point regarding MCDH currently. Note the closing line, "We ask that the public contact the hospital directly with any concerns or questions they may have about the conflicting reports currently surfacing in local media."
Well, this member of the public, who pays taxes that help support MCDH, called and asked for either the CEO of the hospital or the administrator in charge of North Coast Family Health to explain what's going on and their response was to hide behind a PR guy's tardy and feeble response.