Seeking to restore stability to Alameda County’s much criticized public hospital system, hospital trustees are negotiating with Dr. Samuel Ross of Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Tex., to become the system’s next CEO.
Although a deal to hire Ross, Parkland’s senior vice president and chief medical officer, hasn’t been sealed, the two sides are in exclusive negotiations, said Alameda County Medical Center Board President Dr. Ted Rose.
The medical center includes Oakland’s Highland Hospital, which serves most of Berkeley’s trauma and emergency cases. Also in the public hospital network, required to treat the uninsured, are San Leandro’s Fairmont Hospital, John George Psychiatric Pavilion and three outpatient clinics
Last year, with the medical center facing a $50 million deficit and having fired its ninth chief executive in 11 years, county lawmakers turned over management to Nashville, Tenn.-based consultant Cambio Health Solutions.
With Cambio’s management contract set to expire on Aug. 7, the absence of a new leadership team was one of several criticisms lodged at the board of trustees in a Alameda County Grand Jury report released in May.
The grand jury also charged that the board, despite receiving $70 million from a county sales tax increase, appeared unable to balance its budget, make tough decisions on layoffs and service reductions, curtail the power of unions and reduce borrowing from the county.
“The grand jury report was bogus, a real hatchet job,” said Brad Cleveland of SEIU, Local 616.
Kay Eisenhower, the chair of pro-labor Vote Health, challenged the timing of the report, released nearly two months before the annual grand jury report. She said insiders believed the early release was timed to complicate the search for a new CEO and keep Cambio in charge of the hospital.
Eisenhower also said the grand jury foreman was a former associate of County Sheriff Charles Plummer, who, she said, first recommended the county bring in Cambio.
“It’s suspicious when last year a doctor was murdered, there was a $50 million deficit and the hospital was threatened with decertification, but the grand jury report came out as scheduled, but this year, there is a balanced budget, no threat of decertification, but the grand jury feels the need to issue its report in May,” she said.
Cleveland said that Plummer had written the grand jury a series of letters critical of the medical center and that some of the letters “looked suspiciously similar” to the grand jury report.
A case in point, he said, was the grand jury’s findings that on any day 25 percent of employees are on paid leave. He said that figure came from Cambio reports, relayed from Plummer to the grand jury, that combined vacation and sick days with medical leave.
“It was interesting that misinformation provided by Cambio was picked up by the sheriff and ended up in the grand jury report,” he said.
The trustees, preparing a formal response due to the grand jury Monday, also challenged the report.
“A lot of their information was outdated,” said Board President Dr. Ted Rose. “We knew in March we were heading towards a balanced budget.”
Last week, with the help of $70 million from the sales tax hike approved by voters in 2004, the board passed a budget with a projected net income of $253,028 without laying off workers or reducing services.
Public hospitals in the state have been hard hit by lower fees paid by Medicare and Medi-Cal and an increase in low-income residents without insurance. Rose said between 40 and 50 percent of the medical center’s patients were uninsured.
He added that the board wanted to steady the hospital’s finances through running a more efficient operation rather than cutting staff.
“The question is, how do you reduce staff without reducing services,” he said.
Rose also defended agreements with unions signed last year that gave workers 3 and 5 percent raises as necessary to retain skilled employees.
County Supervisor Keith Carson said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the medical center’s future, but cautioned that it had to make further service and billing reforms so it wouldn’t be so dependent on the sales tax increase.
“Given the depth of the challenges, they need to make structural changes,” he said. “I haven’t seen that yet.”
As far as the medical center’s preferred new leader, Ross could not be reached for comment on his possible appointment to the helm of the county hospital system. A native Texan, he has been a mainstay for the past 12 years at Parkland, best known as the facility President John F. Kennedy was rushed to after being fatally shot.
Ross has degrees in medicine and medical management from the University of Texas. When he was promoted to his current position in 2003, Parkland CEO Dr. Ron Anderson said of Ross: “His interest in community outreach, indigent health care and public health has led to increased patient volume and revenues and more than $3 million in grant programs for community clinics.”