After public testimony and a petition raised concerns about workplace bullying and poor patient care, the board of directors of the Sunshine Community Health Center clinics in Talkeetna, Willow, and Wasilla this week fired its CEO and put its medical director on administrative leave.
Sunshine is a non-profit Federally Qualified Health Center, operating the only medical facilities in Talkeetna and Willow. Part of their mission is to see and treat patients regardless of their ability to pay.
And the Sunshine Community Health Center board of directors heard sharp criticism of clinic leadership last month by petition and public testimony.
At the April 27 board meeting, held by Zoom, multiple former employees described concerns about patient care, problems opening a new facility, and a negative work environment.
While the petition focused on Sunshine CEO Melody West, many day-to-day concerns centered on Medical Director Dr. George Hightower.
Multiple former employees who left their jobs in late April described bullying behavior and language from Dr. Hightower. Those who departed included former medical support supervisor Shyloh Snowberger, who spoke at the meeting and agreed to an interview.
“I’ve heard him yell at the top of his lungs at an employee and slam a door, stomp down the hall, and then come back again and yell again because he thought of something new and mean to say,” Snowberger said. “I’ve heard him call medical assistants ‘stupid’ and ‘ignorant.’”
Snowberger is not the only former colleague to accuse Dr. Hightower of bullying. Others have similar stories, including former lab coordinator Melissa Quentenilla, who testified before the board of directors.
“I’ve been confronted by Dr. Hightower many times,” Quentenilla said. “He’s yelled at me. He’s told me that I’m incompetent.”
Hightower denied the allegations in an interview.
“That has never occurred,” he said. “I have never seen that happen.”
Employees also described significant concerns about patient care and follow-up.
Caitlin Quinn worked for a few months as a medical assistant at Sunshine’s newest clinic in Wasilla. She said during her time, lack of follow-up on lab work led to angry patients awaiting results, and may have put one person in the hospital.
“It came out after the fact that, if we had called him with his results on time, and known to call him, he wouldn’t have had to go to the hospital and have a pacemaker put in,” Quinn said about one patient.
Quinn believes West and Hightower did not provide adequate leadership while opening the Wasilla clinic. She said critical supplies, including personal protective equipment, were missing or unusable.
Snowberger, Quinn, and Quentenilla left their positions relatively recently and voluntarily. All of them said they reported their concerns to supervisors.
One of those supervisors was Lane Baker, who served as Sunshine’s Medical Administrative Manager for a little over six months until March 2021. He said CEO Melody West fired him shortly after he reported the concerns of employees.
Baker recalled an incident after a lack of follow-up on test results led to a significant missed diagnosis.
“It was very concerning. Not a week later, after that incident happened, Melody called me into her office, telling me that I should have never allowed that meeting to happen, that I never should have allowed anyone beneath me to complain about Dr. Hightower,” Baker said. “I was just taken aback by that. I was confused by it. Then a week after that, I was fired with no warning.”
Baker oversaw a number of areas at Sunshine, including the administration of the clinic’s COVID-19 vaccination program. He believes the Wasilla expansion could have been a great opportunity, but said there have been significant issues getting it off the ground.
“There was little to no planning,” Baker said. “There was little to no communication, little to no execution.”
Dr. Hightower acknowledged Sunshine has taken on a large task in opening a new clinic, but cited overall growth in staff positions as evidence it can be managed.
“To say that we’re going through growing pains is an understatement, but it’s a task that we’re up to, and we will provide the services the community needs, regardless of what’s being said to the contrary,” he said in an interview.
While concerns have been aired recently in public, former employees said the problems have been ongoing behind the scenes. Paula Strong, who worked at Sunshine for 15 years, testified that concerns about leadership led to many staff departures over the last two years.
Hightower pointed to the fact that even if individuals were leaving, overall staffing numbers are up, and the Wasilla clinic was providing care where there was a need.
“Fortunately for Sunshine, our community has grown significantly,” Hightower said. “That just means that we can now serve more people.”
When asked to comment for this story, Sunshine CEO Melody West referred questions to the board of directors.
At their meeting on May 25, the Sunshine board voted unanimously to terminate West and appoint Randall Kowalke as interim CEO. Kowalke has served on the board, and is a former Mat-Su Borough Assembly member.
As of May 26, Kowalke said the inquiry into complaints about Dr. Hightower had not been closed, and Hightower is currently on paid administrative leave.