By Deb Murphy

Northern Inyo Hospital District’s Wednesday board meeting was rough. The board of directors and CEO Victoria Alexander-Lane seem to be taking incremental changes to smooth things out. But for NIH’s chief of staff, it may be too late.

Dr. Thomas Boo, former Chief of Staff, Leo Freis, Chief Operating Officer and Victoria Alexander-Lane, Chief Executive Officer

Dr. Thomas Boo, former Chief of Staff, Leo Freis, Chief Operating Officer and Victoria Alexander-Lane, Chief Executive Officer

At the start of his staff report, Dr. Thomas Boo announced he was stepping down as NIH chief of staff due to “a dysfunctional relationship with the CEO.” His statement was met with stunned silence from approximately 100 people in the audience and no words from the board.

The board did respond to staff concern over a change in the hospital’s complaint and grievance policy. Rather than approve the change that would remove the board as a last resort in the complaints and grievance process, board member Dr. John Ungersma moved that the policy be tabled and that the language in the hospital’s progressive discipline process be scrutinized and made more clear. The grievance policy was the only one up for a vote, but the board recognized that the two policies were connected. Board member Pete Watercott opened the door to have the board possibly make the determination that the progressive discipline process was followed in disputed cases.

During the public comment period, Denise Morrill, a member of the nurse’s union organizing committee, read the 17 references to “at will” and “sole discretion” in four pages of the hospital’s progressive discipline policy. The references made it clear that discipline and termination were well within the purview of administration.

The explanations for both the grievance policy and disciplinary language all made sense; but within the context of the current morale among staff, both just added fuel to the fire. “I have never seen a hospital where staff and employees could go to the board” with grievances, said Chief Operating Officer Leo Freis. Freis noted that the language in the discipline policy was “scary. California is an at-will state, but that’s not how it works here. We do progressive discipline. Your fear is real,” he said to the nurses. “But with the union you no longer have that fear. Georgan Stottlemyre (NIH’s chief of human resources) will not let us do anything but progressive discipline.”

Other managers spoke in favor of approving the policy change that would eliminate the board from the process; an RN spoke of bad experiences at other hospital and the fact he appreciated the fact that at NIH he could go to the board with grievances.

It was union organizing committee member Heleen Welvaart who suggested that the language in the progressive discipline policy be fixed first. Ungersma agreed.

Another issue that has surfaced in board meeting discussions is the hospital’s Family and Medical Leave policy. The board and CEO maintained that staff who exceeded the standard 16-week leave were rehired at their former pay scale, assuming their previous job level was still open. “That’s not what the policy says,” was the response from audience members.

Toward the end of the meeting, Lane gave the board an update on the hospital’s Strategic Plan. One of those items was a comprehensive communication plan which she acknowledged was being worked on.

The public comment period at the start of the meeting set the tone. Dr. Mike Phillips attributed the “permeating fear” among staff on a failure of leadership and asked that the board “see that this is worked out now. I hope you can fix this.” Dr. Michael Dillion noted the number of perceptions on the part of staff, administrators and the board. “We have to be a team and work together,” he said calling for a working group with representatives from all levels at the hospital to face the issue. “We need restraint. The problems here preceded the administrator. We need to face the problems and solve them as a group.”

And the big news, NIH Chief of Staff Dr. Thomas Boo announced he was stepping down as chief due to a “dysfunctional relationship with the administrator.”


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