Bad medicine at the hospital?
Three longtime employees at Aspen Valley Hospital either quit suddenly or were summarily fired last week, and some members of the hospital staff are in an uproar – aimed at the hospital’s administration.
The reason for much of the furor – and perhaps the underlying cause of the firing and resignations – is a recent decision by the hospital board to allow hospital administrator Randy Middlebrook to buy the house he is living in, which was bought with public funds and has belonged to the hospital district until now.
“He’s not administrator for life, I don’t think … I hope not,” said one employee. “It’s not right. That’s not the way our tax dollars should work.”
She and others argued that the home should be reserved for whoever is the hospital administrator at any given time, as was originally intended, rather than being sold to one administrator who could keep the house even if he quits or is fired.
But Middlebrook said Tuesday that, while the sale of the house has been authorized by the hospital board and Pitkin County, “It’s certainly not a done deal yet.”
He said he is aware that there is some unhappiness among the staff about the deal, but he declined to discuss the specifics, such as the purchase price or any restrictions governing the fate of the house should he quit his job. He referred questions to members of the board.
No board members could be reached for comment on Tuesday. But a memo to the Pitkin County Commissioners from Country Attorney John Ely stated that the board feels Middlebrook probably would leave the valley if he quit or were fired from his hospital job. In that case, according to Ely, the hospital board could exercise its “right of first refusal” and buy the house back from Middlebrook.
However, no information was immediately available as to whether Middlebrook would be allowed to make a profit when selling the house back to the hospital.
Several employees questioned the appropriateness of the sale, worrying that it sets a bad precedent and may mean the hospital will be forced to buy another home for the next administrator if Middlebrook opts to stay in the valley even if he leaves the hospital.
One employee, who asked not to be identified, said the gag line around the hospital concerning the sale is, “That’s like selling the White House to the President.”
Employees consistently praised the hospital for the quality of health care it provides, but criticized Middlebrook and the hospital’s chief financial officer, Verna Bartlett, for their treatment of hospital staffers.
“We feel we should have an administration we can talk to … that cares about staff,” said one long-term employee. She also spoke only on condition of anonymity, explaining, “I’m not quite ready to retire this year, and if you use my name I’ll be fired.”
“If you don’t agree with Randy and Verna, you get fired or life gets real hard for you,” said former staffer Jeann Soulsby, who left the hospital more than two years ago after what she said were disputes with Bartlett.
According to some of those who have contacted The Aspen Times this week, Greg Kayne, who was abruptly fired last week, had been critical of the plan to sell Middlebrook the house. Kayne was the materials manager for the hospital, in charge of supplies and equipment.
But Kayne, who at 41 was a nine-year hospital employee, said only that he was fired on Sept. 14 by Bartlett and declined to comment further on his dismissal “because my lawyer said I shouldn’t.” He did confirm, however, that two other high-level employees have either quit and left the hospital or given notice that they’ll be leaving soon.
Kayne’s assistant, Steve Sindle, quit and left the hospital the same day as Kayne, after more than 20 years there. And the hospital’s project manager, Bill Brunworth, a veteran of more than a decade at the hospital, reportedly gave notice last week. Neither Sindle nor Brunworth returned telephone calls.
When asked if the two quit as a protest over his firing, Kayne said, “Oh, I couldn’t say that.”
But, he added, “I’ve been overwhelmed by the support I’ve gotten” from his fellow employees. He did not elaborate as to what kind of support, other than to say that he has been getting phone calls from supporters expressing sympathy and anger over what happened.
Middlebrook denied that Kayne was fired over his criticism of the home purchase, saying “that allegation is absolutely untrue. That would be insanely ironic if … we were to take that kind of vindictive action” the day after he won approval for the purchase.
Refusing to discuss details of Kayne’s dismissal, Middlebrook said, “His exodus here was appropriate. It had nothing to do with this rumor … no connection whatsoever.”
Also declining to talk about Sindle’s departure, Middlebrook said he has not received “official confirmation that Bill is leaving,” although he indicated that he would not be surprised if it happens.
Middlebrook also rejected the idea that his employees do not trust him and feel he is not available to talk with them, or that “this is some organization that’s run with an iron fist in an autocratic fashion.
“I wouldn’t say a majority of the organization doesn’t feel they can speak with me about their opinions,” he continued, adding that “whenever you have a longstanding employee leave the organization, there is some emotional fallout.”
He maintained that the hospital offers better all-around medical service than it did five years ago, including expanded facilities and a greater breadth of medical specialties.
“Our own community went elsewhere for care,” he said of the hospital’s local reputation five years ago. “That is not happening anymore. Sure, we’re not perfect. I’d be a fool to claim that we were.”
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