In The News: Public vents anger about SVMH

NewsJuly 28, 2011

Some call for charges against board members

Monterey County Herald:

By JIM JOHNSON, Herald Staff Writer

Dozens of outraged community members and beleaguered employees vented their frustrations over alleged malfeasance at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital during a public meeting held by Assemblyman Luis Alejo in Salinas on Wednesday.

During a question-and-answer session, speakers blasted hospital officials on a host of issues, including what they called excessive executive pay while lower-paid employees are being laid off, a penchant for secrecy and questionable business and financial practices. Some called for a criminal investigation.

Much of the commentary was followed by enthusiastic applause, the meeting often resembling a pep rally.

Some speakers said that despite increased media attention in recent months, Salinas Valley Memorial officials have been operating with impunity, and without much public scrutiny, for years. They urged those at Wednesday’s meeting to go to hospital board meetings and express the same concerns there.

Alejo, D-Watsonville, told the speakers they had a responsibility to ensure their public hospital was being properly managed and overseen. He said Salinas Valley Memorial is in need of “major changes.”

“The most important part is what happens after this (meeting),” he said, urging attendees to get involved and help promote more “transparency” while getting the hospital back on “solid financial footing.”

“Make sure what happened in the past is not going to happen any more,” he said.

Labor leader Cesar Lara said he has been looking into the hospital’s practices since 2007, when a proposed sales tax measure that would have funded a massive expansion was defeated. Lara said the current focus on the hospital is a “wake-up call” for the community, and urged voters to elect “the right people” to the board.

Alejo said he scheduled Wednesday’s meeting, held at Boronda Meadows Elementary School, because a torrent of questions about the hospital has not abated since he called for a state audit of the institution in May. The six-month audit, approved by the state Joint Legislative Audit Committee, is under way.

After presenting a short overview of the state audit process, Alejo opened the meeting to public comment.

Speakers immediately began calling for criminal charges against former hospital CEO Sam Downing, whose salary and retirement pay drew national media coverage. They also urged charges for current and former hospital board members, accusing them of complicity.

An audit was fine, they said, but Downing’s retirement pay should be cut off and he should be sent to jail. The comments received thunderous applause.

Other speakers panned the board’s refusal to make public the McKenzie & Co. strategic plan report, which cost nearly $1million and laid out a number of options for the hospital, including a lease or affiliation with a larger health care organization. One speaker asked if the board could sell the hospital without a public vote, and Alejo said he didn’t know but that a vote should be required.

In answer to questions about whether specific issues would be covered in the audit, such as the hospital board’s relationship with community events like the Salinas air show or businesses such as Rabobank or Doctors on Duty, Alejo said he wasn’t sure. But he said the state auditor has discretion to include a range of issues, and urged residents to contact the office.

Activist David Serena said he and others tried for years to get hospital district officials to change their method of electing board members so more of a cross-section of the community could be represented. A hospital board-appointed electoral committee began meeting recently.

Current and former Salinas Valley Memorial employees, including nutritional services worker Patricia Torres, said layoffs have left the hospital short-staffed and often without direction as morale has dipped. They argued that patient care and safety have been compromised, despite hospital officials’ assurances to the contrary.

A few speakers said they asked Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue for help but were turned down.

Toward the end of the meeting, the hospital board’s newest member, Pat Egan, thanked people for their comments and urged them to attend the board meeting Aug. 18 and the electoral committee meeting next week.

Lowell Johnson, interim Salinas Valley Memorial CEO, attended the meeting but did not speak.