Council, except Tobin, stays mum on hospital issues
The clock was pushing 10 p.m. when the Nome Common Council adjourned its regular meeting on Jan. 22.
A work session and agenda generated four and one-half hours’ discussion dealing with structure abatements, 2019 budget, an audit and several public comments offering opinions stemming from hiring and firing issues at Norton Sound Health Corporation.
During the first public comment period in the regular meeting, Ken Hughes, identifying himself as Citizen Hughes, took the podium to read his statement criticizing the NSHC administration and challenging the panel to remove Councilman Stan Andersen as the City’s representative on the NSHC Board of Directors.
“Our region is currently facing a crisis in the management of our current health care system at NSHC,” Hughes started out. “How has this happened, who is responsible, and what can the City of Nome do to take constructive action to reverse this trend?”
Hughes’ opinion compared the operations of the Norton Sound Board of Directors “to examples of village officials and trained staff being replaced by family members and other paycheck collectors with unnecessary travel to unattended workshops, trainings and seminars and weekly stipended meetings with no real accomplishments, massive employee advances and all manner of shenanigans depleting the city treasury.”
He gave other examples of organizations that could be stellar in performance given public spirited, hardworking council persons or boardmembers of integrity.
In the past few years, long standing NSHC board members have fell to bickering and greed, Hughes said. Employee Angie Gorn, successful at lower levels, has been promoted to CEO and board members have the presumption that “Angie’s our boss,” Hughes said, going on and losing his composure in tears several times as he delivered his five pages of comments.
Gorn, with Chief Operating Officer Chris Bolton, had “instituted what can only be called a reign of terror at NSHC,” with employees facing disciplinary action for speaking to board members in the most general terms regarding NSHC.
“Long-standing professional employees, well-respected locally and state wide and nationally are being eliminated,” Hughes said. “Well-qualified returning residents of the region have been denied employment for exercising their [constitutional] rights.”
Hughes apparently referred to the controversy centering on termination of 42-year employee Dr. Karen O’Neill and Dr. David Head, hospital administrator who has been demoted and had his contract, expiring in April, not renewed.
David Head’s son, Ben Head, attended a phone interview for a physician’s position, but did not receive a job offer. O’Neill has been cleared of any wrong-doing. Her license appearing on a state web site shows no corrective actions or citations.
The firings and non-hire have been subject to many yards of comments on local social media.
At a previous Council meeting on Jan. 8, Councilman Lew Tobin asked Andersen, a NSHC board member, whether NSHC Board Chair Jacob Ivanoff had been removed. Andersen replied to the affirmative without giving cause. Asked whether the next board meeting was in Hawaii, Andersen replied that the next board meeting would be later in the month in Nome. Andersen cautioned that NSHC was owned by 15 Native corporations, that City of Nome had a seat because the corporations “let us.” Following the Jan. 8 meeting, Andersen confirmed that the board members were attending a retreat on Maui from Feb. 11 through 16.
“They are making me go,” Andersen said, and confirmed that the meeting honorarium per day was $500 plus $75 per diem for miscellaneous expenses.
Hughes, at Monday’s meeting, said Andersen’s answers were “ingenuous.”
“Watching these many years as you have dominated the Nome City Council, I can’t imagine that as treasurer of the NSHC board, with a seat on the executive committee, that you have done any less there,” Hughes said.
Hughes challenged the Council to boot Andersen from his board position.
“Mr. Mayor and Council, you have abdicated your responsibility to serve and protect the residents of this community through your failure to require regular reporting to this Council by your representative to the NSHC Board,” Hughes said. “Tonight you have an opportunity to stand up for the residents of this community and the region by immediately removing Councilman Andersen from this position thereby sending a clear message to this current inept and inadequate administration.”
There was no requirement that Nome’s representative to the NSHC board be from the Council, but merely an interested individual from the community in which the Council had confidence, that would perform the duties with integrity and honesty.
Hughes’ spouse, Emily Hughes, joined the board in 1996. She became chairwoman in 2000 and served in that capacity until she was voted out in 2016. The current board chair, Jacob Ivanoff, has been suspended for “personal” reasons.
Council members made no comment.
NSHC CEO Angela Gorn came up to bat. At the Jan. 8 Council meeting, Council members said they would like to have more frequent information from NSHC. Gorn began with acknowledging the fine contributions Emily Hughes had made to the hospital and health care while Hughes served on the NSHC Board of Directors, but otherwise did not take on Hughes’ comments.
As a 20-year Nome resident she said she is proud to have served as CEO and president of NSHC for five years at the pleasure of the NSHC Board, as well as the 20 tribes that own NSHC, Gorn said. She had worked for 13 of the past 20 years in hospital administration, having come to the organization as a nutritionist.
“The tribes, all 20 of them, have kindly provided the City of Nome a seat at the table. I feel it is important to get that point across. We continue to have an open door to build good relations with the community of Nome,” Gorn said.
These are some of the points Gorn made during her update of goings-on at NSHC.
• Norton Sound is the largest employer in the region—about 700 jobs. About 550 are in Nome; 158 are village-based. The organization works hard on cultural education and historical trauma training, recently delivering such a three-day cultural training to 280 employees.
• NSHC has recently increased scholarships from $1,000 to $1,500 for a full-time student and $500 to $750 for a part-time student. NSHC now offers five competitive scholarships at $5,000 a semester for tribal members. NSHC has seen an increase in the tribal management rate by 10 percent.
• NSHC has a total of 12 permanent physicians on staff. NSHC has added a nurse triage line, which logged 4,286 calls during FY2017. Nome residents made 550 of those calls. Seventy-eight percent of the calls did not result in a visit to the ER because nurses delivered education and medical guidance over the phone.
• NSHC is close to launching a home-health care program for Nome and the villages as well as a prescription delivery service
• NSHC is expanding community education, which includes bed bug education, distribution of at-home supply kits, and funding to assist with effective resolution of the problem.
• NSHC has achieved a 45 percent reduction in opioids prescribed through the facility since 2015.
• NSHC’s MRI machine addition will be completed in October 2018.
• New clinics are planned for Shaktoolik, Shishmaref, and St. Michael.
• NSHC has recently donated $15,000 towards the Nome Cemetery upgrades.
Gorn offered to take questions at the end of her presentation. Councilman Lew Tobin asked about the current controversy concerning medical personnel. She did not think social media was the right forum for the issues. She would take specific questions.
Why didn’t NSHC renew Dr. David Head’s contract, Tobin asked. Gorn paused, then said she did not feel comfortable answering questions on personnel. Tobin asked why NSHC did not hire Ben Head as a physician. Gorn gave the same answer.
During Council comments at the end of the meeting, several on the panel thanked both Gorn and Hughes for their bravery in addressing the Council.
Take down, clean up
The work session before the meeting started with four property owners making a deal with the City to write down and hand in plans for fixing up properties that the Nome Planning Commission has listed nominated for fix-up or demolition. The four said they wanted to fix up or tear down the structures themselves to avoid having to reimburse the City for demolition.
Jim West Jr. declared his roofless structure on East Front Street was “a sun room that is open air—the wind has taken the roof off.” It would be the wrong timing for the City to expect repairs during the winter, but he intended to take care of it this coming summer, he said. “It does need repair. I will repair it or remove it.”
Patrick Krier of Krier Properties planned to demolish his cabin structure at 507 Bering Street following removal of his stored and valuable belongings. He preferred not to have to pay the City to do it. “It’s boarded up,” Krier said. “I’ll come up with a plan, get the stuff out, sell it and pay sales tax.”
Donald Johnson told the Council his house and out buildings going street to street between West Second and West First on the west side of town was his parents storage and warehouse. The remedy for the summer is to get plywood up [blocking openings]. “The electric was cut off two years ago,” he said.
Tony Shelp represented Gladys West at the meeting, concerning two burned out structures on in the 400 block on Lomen Avenue, after salvage is removed from the apartments. There is a significant drop-off under the buildings, as well as the shoulder of the road pushing up under the buildings, causing them to lean, Shelp said.
Councilman Stan Andersen suggested the City should budget to put a fence along after demolition for safety’s sake.
Shelp asked for and received a promise that the City would put a large dumpster at the bottom of the hill to receive remnants from the abatement.
The Council decided that the four properties must be fixed by July 1 or go back on the abatement list.
Council OKs land sale
The Council unanimously approved a disposal of surplus land belonging to City of Nome. The lots, measuring about 7,000 sq. ft. and numbering more than 50 lie along the south side of Greg Kruschek Avenue. The do not currently have utilities running to them, a fact reflected in their price of $19,300 each. Bid forms may be obtained at City Hall. Sealed bids must be submitted in person or by mail no later than 11 a.m. Friday, Feb. 23. Faxed bids will not be accepted.
The Council voted to accept an audit they hadn’t read after a brief overview from a representative of Altman, Rogers and Company.
During final comments, Charlie Lean took the podium to say he was glad to see Angie Gorn at the meeting with an update. Further, he recounted working for 31 years as an Emergency Medical Technician, much of the time with Dr. Karen O’Neill. He expressed admiration also for Dr. David Head and remembered Dr. Head’s father, Dr. Kitchener Head working also at the hospital. He wanted someone to tell him why doctors David Head and Karen O’Neill had been forced out.
“They did nothing wrong. They were treated unfairly,” Lean said.
Andersen commented that more about the situation would be known within the year.