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Hospital withholds resignation letter

CEO announced plan to resign at Dec. 30 meeting

— Three Rivers Hospital officials are refusing to release the resignation letter of Chief Executive Officer O.E. “Bud” Hufnagel.

Hufnagel gave copies of the letter to Chairwoman Vicki Orford and former commissioner Dan Webster after the Dec. 30 special meeting had adjourned, hospital spokeswoman Rebecca Meadows said.

On the advice of the hospital attorney, Meadows said the hospital would not release the letter because “it’s an internal personnel issue.”

Meadows said she didn’t know the name of the hospital’s attorney or law firm, nor could she cite a statutory exemption allowing her to withhold the letter.

Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Executive Director Bill Will said the letter is public record.

“It’s an official communication between the CEO and the board,” Will said. “They’re just stalling. There’s no reason they don’t release it.”

Meadows said she would contact The Chronicle on Tuesday after meetings.

Four of the five commissioners who could be reached for comment Monday – Vicki Orford, Jerry Tretwold, Mike Pruett and newcomer Cherryl Thomas – also declined to release the letter.

“It’s a personal letter from Bud Hufnagel to the board,” Pruett said.

Thomas said she wasn’t at liberty to share it.

Commissioner Tracy Shrable did not return a phone call.

Webster, a former board member whose term expired Dec. 31, said he still had his copy and didn’t think it contained anything “particularly alarming.”

Orford read a portion of the letter to The Chronicle.

While Hufnagel, 66, wrote that he believed the hospital’s financial troubles could be improved, “What I wasn’t sure about was whether or not the hospital could be turned around given our demographics, adverse payer mix and significant volume of self-paid patients that we see,” Orford said, reading the letter.

“We have made tremendous strides in this regard and the credit for that goes to our hospital staff and their managers.”

Orford said the letter ended with Hufnagel’s offer to compile a list of potential candidates to take his place.

Tretwold, who butted heads with Hufnagel during a heated discussion about cutting services in the Dec. 30 board meeting, disagreed with withholding the letter.

“I’m surprised that our hospital CEO does not want to release his reason for leaving the board,” he said. “Our district voters need to know and understand what’s happening at our Three Rivers Hospital.”

The Chronicle also attempted to contact Hufnagel and Human Resources Director Anita Fisk, but the calls were not returned.

Hufnagel’s resignation would go into effect at the end of April.

In an interview last week, Hufnagel said he is not resigning because of the recent contentious meetings that resulted in eliminating some services and scaling back on others.

He was hired in September 2011 to turn around the hospital’s financial position and reduce the $2.6 million in outstanding warrants with Okanogan County, but said he felt he was no longer “able to do the things that I was hired to do.”

He said the hospital is “not going to be taking the path of trying to do a turnaround, we’re not going to be taking the path of reducing warrants … and that’s fine,” he said. “I’m good with that if that’s the path the board and the organization wants to go down, I support that.

“But that being the case, they don’t need me in the mix and I saw no reason for me to continue to try to wage that battle.”

Hufnagel and other administrative staff were asked by the commissioners to come up with several options to cut costs in 2014. The seven options presented at the Nov. 25 meeting resulted in no decisions, but a standing-room-only meeting wherein some hospital staff, physicians and community members complained primarily about the potential cuts to obstetrics.

The staff came forward Dec. 16 with two recommendations. The board selected the second option, which kept obstetrics but cut 16 positions and eliminated the cardio-pulmonary rehabilitation program, Healthbeat Fitness Center and Advantage Durable Medical Equipment. It also reduced the hours of the respiratory therapy and surgery departments and eliminated emergency procedures except Cesarean sections.

Negotiations are under way to sell Healthbeat and Advantage to Bennie Polvos, the manager of Advantage. He plans to keep both businesses operating in the community.

Tretwold, who called for a vote last month to make obstetrics the cornerstone of the hospital’s services, requested at the Dec. 30 meeting that the board postpone its decision to end cardiac rehab until the scheduled Feb. 11 board retreat. He was reminded that the board could not take a vote on something not included in the special meeting agenda.

“The board is clearly divided, and instead of having a unified board that is trying to support the best interest of the hospital, we have board members who are trying to support personal taste and not what’s best for the hospital,” Hufnagel said.

Cardiopulmonary rehabilitation services ended Jan. 1 because the hospital could not comply with a law that requires an physician to be on-site to supervise at all times. However, Hufnagel said he hoped to speak to some physicians this week to work out a way to keep the program running.

In July 2013, Hufnagel’s contract was renewed by the board at a salary of $175,000 per year. His initial contract was for two years at $150,000 per year, to be renewed in two-year implements unless he or the board determined that he was no longer needed, Meadows said.

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