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Board backs CEO choice

Coulee Medical’s top administrator tapped for Brewster

— Three Rivers Hospital commissioners are standing behind their selection of embattled Coulee Medical Center Administrator J. Scott Graham as their new CEO.

The board offered the position to Graham after a public interview process March 25.

He and another finalist, Eugene Suksi of Crescent City, Calif., spent the earlier part of last week meeting hospital employees and commissioners, and touring the area, as well as participating in interviews.

Hospital board Chairwoman Vicki Orford said Graham “is the best fit for the job.”

“He exceeds the necessary qualifications and he was very honest with the board about the controversy in Grand Coulee,” Orford said. “There is much that will become evident if Scott accepts our offer of a contract.”

Graham has declined to publicly answer questions about the controversy and failed to return calls to The Chronicle seeking comment.

At Coulee Medical Center, doctors issued a vote of no confidence last year against Graham. Calls for Graham’s termination have prompted the board to green light an investigation into whether he should be fired.

In addition, two employees – Dawn Lovelace and Wendy Hughes – reportedly resigned,

citing issues with management.

Neither Lovelace nor Hughes could be reached for comment.

Lovelace submitted a letter of resignation in February.

“I had always thought I would retire from CMC,” she wrote. “However, I can no longer tolerate the ongoing stress of working with an incompetent, uncommunicative and increasingly hostile administration.

“The situation has been progressively worsening for the last two years, and I am now at the point where it is negatively affecting my health.”

Despite the ongoing controversy, Orford said contract negotiations are scheduled to begin after tomorrow, April 3. She plans to handle the negotiations on behalf of the board, and sometime this month a special public meeting will be scheduled to discuss and then vote on the contract.

“I stand with Vicki as our chair, as does our entire board on our decision,” Commissioner Jerry Tretwold said. “We carefully thought through the pluses and minuses of choosing Scott, and felt the positives far outweighed the negative.”

Although two semi-finalists had pulled out of the selection process, Tretwold said having only two finalists allowed Orford to do “extensive research on their capabilities.”

“The big thing is, we have made this decision,” Tretwold said. “We are moving forward as a board and as a team, and that includes all staff, doctors and the community.”

He said the board reviewed several years’ worth of Graham’s performance reviews as well as Coulee Medical Center board meeting minutes going back about two years.

“Among his peers, he’s very well respected,” Tretwold said of Graham. “In fact, members on our Caribou Trail (Orthopedics) board were very excited to hear we might consider Scott for the position and encouraged us to choose him.”

Commissioner Tracy Shrable agreed with Orford, but had no other comment. Commissioner Cherryl Thomas was out of town and not part of the voting process.

Commissioner Michael Pruett did not return a request for comment.

Coulee Medical Center Commissioner Betty Brueske said she doesn’t have a lot of experience working with Graham since she just took office in January, but called him “personable and compassionate.”

“He is, I think, a very good administrator in terms of financial issues,” she said. “I think one real plus is his ability to control spending, which I know most hospitals now are needing to do that.

“I think that he has a really good grasp of Washington law, hospital law, and that’s a very important aspect of his job as a CEO.”

Former commissioner Greg Behrens, who resigned March 20, is also supportive of Graham. He voted against the board’s decision March 10 to investigate whether it has cause to fire the administrator.

“In the time that I was on the board… I learned an awful lot from Scott as far as honesty and knowledge of rural hospital situations and integrity,” Behrens said. “He’s a great man and he’s very open and honest. I just really enjoyed working with him.”

Behrens said his understanding of the issues between physicians and the administration have been gleaned from public board meetings and what he has read in various media interviews.

“The doctors basically did not like going into new contract negotiations, and it was something we had to do, get their payment in line with reasonable market hospitals,” he said. “The doctors refused to negotiate their contracts, and to this day they’ve still refused to.”

Brueske also noted that the contract negotiations haven’t been settled yet.

Lovelace’s letter contradicts Behrens.

“You should know that we had tried everything else we could think of to change the decisions and course of this administration. All of our concerns had been falling on deaf ears,” she wrote. “You must know that any resolution will require much more than telling administration to improve employee morale - the majority of our employees do not trust this administration.”

Following up on complaints about Graham’s administration, about 30 registered Coulee Medical Center nurses are seeking union representation. They’ve filed an application to join United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 1439.

The battle between Graham and Coulee Medical Center employees mirrors problems at Three Rivers Hospital.

Physicians in Brewster announced no confidence late last year against current CEO O.E. “Bud” Hufnagel and called for his resignation.

Hufnagel ultimately tendered his resignation, but said it was not in response to the contentious meetings at the time.

Another point of contention at Coulee Medical Center is the $180,000 in bonuses handed out in January to administrators and some providers.

“Incentives are used often to attain goals. I’m one that believes you were hired to do the job, and incentive should not be included in the wage or bonus to get a job done you were hired to do,” Tretwold said. “However, the incentive program was approved by his board. We saw minutes from the meeting that discussed their approval, and I believe at that time the board was totally aware of what Scott was doing.”

Aside from contract negotiations and bonuses, Brueske said, “There are a lot of issues that I think have been simmering for a couple of years and they weren’t addressed, coming from a couple of sides.”

Coulee Medical Center board Chairman Jerry Kennedy could not be reached for comment, nor could board members Geary Oliver or Kris Hare.

The board is accepting applications to fill the seat vacated by Behrens.

Meanwhile, Hufnagel is preparing to leave April 30. He resigned at the end of December.

The board bumped his salary to $175,000 from $150,000 last July.

The Chronicle has filed records requests to learn the amount of Hufnagel’s benefits package, as well as the salary and benefits paid to Graham. So far, the hospitals have failed to provide those documents.

Hufnagel, who is also a principal in the Seattle-based healthcare firm of CareSync Consulting, offered to help identify potential CEO candidates.

Graham learned of the job from Hufnagel, the candidate told the board.

“I feel that he is starting fresh here,” Tretwold said of Graham. “I feel his talents are something we will be very lucky to have.”

citing issues with management.

Neither Lovelace nor Hughes could be reached for comment.

Lovelace submitted a letter of resignation in February.

“I had always thought I would retire from CMC,” she wrote. “However, I can no longer tolerate the ongoing stress of working with an incompetent, uncommunicative and increasingly hostile administration.

“The situation has been progressively worsening for the last two years, and I am now at the point where it is negatively affecting my health.”

Despite the ongoing controversy, Orford said contract negotiations are scheduled to begin after tomorrow, April 3. She plans to handle the negotiations on behalf of the board, with a board vote coming later.

“I stand with Vicki as our chair, as does our entire board on our decision,” Commissioner Jerry Tretwold said. “We carefully thought through the pluses and minuses of choosing Scott, and felt the positives far outweighed the negative.”

Although two semi-finalists had pulled out of the selection process, Tretwold said having only two finalists allowed Orford to do “extensive research on their capabilities.”

“The big thing is, we have made this decision,” Tretwold said. “We are moving forward as a board and as a team, and that includes all staff, doctors and the community.”

He said the board reviewed several years’ worth of Graham’s performance reviews and two years of Coulee Medical Center board meeting minutes.

“Among his peers, he’s very well respected,” Tretwold said of Graham. “In fact, members on our Caribou Trail (Orthopedics) board were very excited to hear we might consider Scott for the position and encouraged us to choose him.”

Coulee Medical Center Commissioner Betty Brueske said she doesn’t have a lot of experience working with Graham since she just took office in January, but called him “personable and compassionate.”

“He is, I think, a very good administrator in terms of financial issues,” she said. “I think one real plus is his ability to control spending, which I know most hospitals now are needing to do that.”

Former commissioner Greg Behrens, who resigned March 20, is also supportive of Graham. He voted against the board’s decision March 10 to investigate whether it has cause to fire the administrator.

Following up on complaints about Graham’s administration, about 30 registered Coulee Medical Center nurses are seeking union representation.

The battle between Graham and Coulee Medical Center employees mirrors problems at Three Rivers Hospital.

Physicians in Brewster announced no confidence late last year against current CEO O.E. “Bud” Hufnagel and called for his resignation.

Hufnagel ultimately tendered his resignation, but said it was not in response to the contentious meetings at the time.

His last day is April 30.

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