COMMUNITY OPINION: Why is fiscal crisis at Hazel Hawkins not on the agenda?

Resident Robert Bernosky writes that residents should become knowledgeable, hold the elected board accountable, and become part of the solution.

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We own Hazel Hawkins Hospital. You and me. Fortunately, we elect a 5-member board who oversees hired administrators who run it day-to-day. But at the end of the day, we own this incredible asset to our rural community, both the good of it, and the bad.

Unfortunately, it is in crisis, as reported by Benitolink. Thankfully, we have Benitolink, because after attending yesterday’s meeting of the San Benito Health Care District, you would never know that they have authorized filing for bankruptcy. The fiscal crisis was never mentioned in the meeting, except by me, during the public comment period. Anyone attending the 40-minute (!) meeting would think everything is going great.

Let’s put this in perspective. COVID came, and local businesses were put in crisis. I admired the business owners who immediately took the steps to do what was necessary to survive. Cattle ranchers called and sold me beef for my freezer that they could not sell to the larger restaurant industry. Local restaurants delivered food and wine to our home for meals and fed us in their parking lots when we wanted to go out. Our entire downtown was transformed into an outdoor destination, and the people came. Surviving was on peoples’ agenda.

Although we can argue over the methodology, school districts did what they thought was necessary to keep students learning. The crisis was on their agenda. Elections were held, the stock market stayed open, the holidays happened, because these different constituencies wanted to survive, and they did. Not perfectly, but the grit of the human spirit, the American spirit, endured.

In all fairness, after I brought up the potential bankruptcy at the meeting, the chief financial officer did make a passing reference to it when he indicated to the board that the financial situation was fluid, and it did not make sense to give updates to them when things were constantly changing. Regardless, that’s crazy. The interim chief executive officer made an indirect reference by saying she was performing advocacy by talking to Assemblymember Rivas and Senator Caballero, not specifying exactly what that advocacy was.

What Hazel Hawkins Hospital needs to do is get all hands-on deck to solve the problem and communicate with each other and the community about the plan, you know, the one to survive the crisis. Without being on the board and having no information, I can only throw out ideas that come from my experience in dealing with distressed entities:

  • Get the county supervisors, city councils, and school boards and their employees lobby Blue Cross Anthem to start adequately reimbursing Hazel Hawkins Hospital for services or have those entities switch to Blue Shield, who does apparently reimburse adequately. We all benefit from having a local hospital, we own it, and all have a vested interest in the doors staying open, time to get these thousands of people helping us.
  • Get our soon-to-be-Speaker of the Assembly, Rob Rivas, who will be in the most powerful position in California, to lobby for loan forgiveness from the State of California.
  • Get our new member of Congress, Zoe Loefgren, to lobby forgiveness from medicare for the over-reimbursement.
  • Form a committee of 2 board members to check-in day to day with the administration to make sure and report on other creative ideas to solve the problem. Leaving this in the hands of one person, the chief financial officer, is not practical or acting responsibly. Leaving it to attorneys only solves legal issues. The hospital needs business solutions to its problems, today and in the future.
  • The public needs to get involved; we own it and many work for it. Ultimately, we are either going to be part of the solution through our dollars, or we are going to watch the plywood go up when the hospital cannot pay its employees or buy supplies.

I want to allow for five possibilities: the reporting of the financial crisis was false. Given that there were indirect references to the crisis, this does not seem probable. Another is that the elected board does not understand the crisis or what to do about it, so they are leaving the situation to the attorneys. Bad if that is the case. Another may be that the crisis is over; they obtained financial relief and they are just waiting for the paperwork to be completed. We should cheer, but question the transparency of the board.  Still another possibility may be that there is criminality involved and everyone in our close-knit community is clamming up. Doubtful. Finally, that the crisis is so bad that closing the doors is inevitable. Don’t you want to know?

Hazel Hawkins Hospital is just like any other government entity in San Benito County: it will always be starved of adequate cash to operate like similar entities in more populous areas. Boards and administrators have to be creative on a day-to-day basis just to keep the doors open and the have the population mostly satisfied. Apparently, they failed in this endeavor, and we have to do our own soul-searching on what do about this great facility that we own. But today we have to put pressure on our elected and their employees to disclose what they know and what the plan is.

Rob Bernosky

Rob Bernosky is a chief financial officer, Chairman of the San Benito County Republican Party, former Regional Vice Chair for the California Republican Party, former president of the governing board of the Hollister School District, and former Delegate to the Republican National Committee. He formerly served as a member and secretary of the Citizens' Oversight Committee for the Hollister School District. Rob is a former elected trustee of the North County Joint Union School District, and has served on numerous other boards, including the Heritage Foundation of San Benito County, a local water company, chairman of the San Benito County Republican Party, and was a member and president of the San Benito County Committee on School District Organization. Rob is married with 3 children, including 2 who are teachers in public schools and 1 in private industry.