Sitka Hospital Cuts Ties With Former CEO, Moves Toward Transition

The hospital classroom fills for the board’s noon meeting. Staffers urged transparency as the board moves forward. “A lot of what’s happened has been a mystery to us,” said one. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)
The hospital classroom fills for the board’s noon meeting. Staffers urged transparency as the board moves forward. “A lot of what’s happened has been a mystery to us,” said one. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Sitka Community Hospital has an interim CEO. The hospital board named Chief Nursing Officer Raine Clarke to the post at a special meeting on Monday (1-5-15). The term of Clarke’s service is not known at the moment. What is known, however, is that former CEO Jeff Comer will not be receiving anything more than his paycheck for his work through last Friday, as Sitka’s embattled hospital struggles to balance its books and find direction.

Raine Clarke is at the top of the duty roster to serve as CEO when the regular hospital CEO is absent — regardless of whether it’s a planned absence. This is by-the-book hospital policy.

Municipal attorney Robin Koutchak nevertheless urged the hospital board to give Clarke the nod formally, even if it was on a very short-term basis. The hospital board also liked the idea of rotating other members of the hospital administration into the CEO role, as has been standard practice.

Jeff Comer speaking to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce in November 2013, prior to disclosures about the hospital’s financial straits. (KCAW Photo/Rachel Waldholz)
Jeff Comer speaking to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce in November 2013, prior to disclosures about the hospital’s financial straits. (KCAW Photo/Rachel Waldholz)

Koutchak said that right now a team really couldn’t serve as CEO .

“My caution is: You really need somebody in charge of the ship.”

So the board settled on Clarke, and there was some comfort in following established procedures to arrive at that decision.

This is board chair Celeste Tydingco.

“We’ve already got policies in place. This isn’t a huge emergency right now. We do have things that we’ve already established that are working. But let’s meet real soon. Let’s get a plan together very, very quickly and make a good plan, and not just a knee-jerk plan.”

To help, the city of Sitka is providing the support of municipal administrator Mark Gorman, chief administrative officer Jay Sweeney, and municipal attorney Robin Koutchak. Member Lori Hart thought that between the hospital board, hospital staff, and municipal staff, some kind of transition plan could be developed in about three weeks.

The transition will not involve Jeff Comer, who became CEO of Sitka Community Hospital in October, and handed in his resignation around New Year’s. Comer vacated his hospital-owned apartment on Sunday, January 4, turned in his keys, rental car, and laptop, and departed Sitka for Phoenix, Arizona, according to Koutchak.

Sitka’s attorney wanted to clear up any misconception about whether Comer would entitled to a severance package worth two months of his $185,000 salary.

She read from an email Comer sent to board members the day before the meeting.

“He says: Per Section 7a of my Employment Agreement the Board must pay me for 60 days. That’s not what that section says in his contract. So if you all could look at his contract, and go to that section. 7a states that he is to give 60 days notice. It doesn’t say we’re to pay him. It says he’s to give us 60 days notice.”

In his email, Comer agrees to remain available to work telephonically from Arizona to support the hospital during the transition. Koutchak felt that didn’t fulfill his employment contract. Furthermore, there’s the alleged assault.

Comer failed to appear for a scheduled meeting with the assembly on January 2, saying — through a statement — that he had been attacked and beaten on a local trail that afternoon, and feared for his safety.

Koutchak felt it was best to move on.

“He gave us his resignation letter dated December 30, and then on Friday he really, really let everyone know by way of the assembly meeting that he was gone, and Sunday he was on a plane. So I think we’re really safe in saying Friday was his last day. Pay him up through Friday, let it go.”

But members Hans von Rekowski and Ann Wilkinson were unsure. Von Rekowski expressed concern about contracts and other work that Comer had in progress, and which might be difficult for someone else to pick up. Wilkinson wondered if the board should postpone accepting Comer’s resignation until they were satisfied that he had left things in order.

Koutchak thought that was unrealistic.

“Ann, I think he’s gone. Elvis has left the building!” (Laughter…)

During public testimony, the hospital board felt some heat — both real and figurative — from the 60 staff and members of the public packed into the hospital’s classroom space. There was sentiment that the board was too dependent on the services of the headhunting firm B.E. Smith in hiring Comer, when a simple Google search would have shown that Comer had jumped often between jobs.

Physician Richard Wien was clearly disappointed in Comer. He urged the board toward accountability and action.

“Real, material damage has been caused to this hospital. How is that so? Well just a couple of examples: I hear nurses are applying to SEARHC. Do you know how hard nurses are to get? I heard that the two mid-levels (physicians) who were coming here were not going to come here or sign contracts because they heard of the financial issues related to this hospital. And it goes on and on and on. When a professional has a job to do, they roll their sleeves up and do it!”

Wien recommended putting a physician on the board. That idea was seconded by member of the public Owen Kindig, who wanted the board to look beyond traditional models of hospital governance. “This is a watershed moment for Sitka,” he said.

There was also a sense of community in the room, and a willingness to work toward a solution. Members of the hospital finance department said that an audit would show that the numbers may not be as bad as Comer had indicated. The mood compelled assembly member Ben Miyasato to step forward and remind hospital staffers that they will come out the other side. “You will weather this,” he said.

Note: Sitka police are soliciting the public’s help regarding the alleged assault of Jeff Comer, which reportedly occurred last Friday at about 1 PM near the bridge on the lower part of Herring Cove Trail. Anyone with helpful information about Comer’s assailants — reportedly a man and a woman — are asked to call police at 747-3245.