After the Board of Directors of the San Benito Health District announced a fiscal emergency at Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital on Nov. 4 and authorized the filing of a Chapter 9 bankruptcy petition, there has been a glaring lack of transparency, according to Rob Bernosky, a consultant who advises distressed companies in situations similar to what the hospital is going through. Apparently, no one apart from the board knows if or when the hospital will close its doors.
In particular, the National Nurses Association, as well as individual nurses, some of whom have been at Hazel Hawkins more than 30 years, learned at the “11th hour” about the filing. Also, Bernosky said he was stunned that no progress reports on the filing have been made public since Nov. 4.
Bernosky and three nurses were the only ones present at the Nov. 17 board meeting. There was nothing on the agenda about the filing. The nurses later told BenitoLink that they only learned at the last minute about the meeting and were angry because no one at the hospital or the union informed them about the meeting.
Bernosky told the board that unless the reporting in the media and the phone calls he had received from concerned hospital employees were false, “my understanding is you’re on the brink of bankruptcy.”
“In my experience, when you’re on the brink of disaster, there are emergency meetings where you can see that the board and the administration are working on the problem and putting out press releases, so the public knows what’s going on,” he said. “I’m sitting here thinking there must not be any crisis. This is such an incredible asset to the community. Is it teetering on the brink of financial disaster or not? Why are you not discussing it tonight?”
He continued: “County supervisors have called me. Employees have called me. It’s out in public. I don’t understand how we can be here tonight and it’s not the No. 1 thing on the agenda.”
He reminded the board that Chapter 9 means they can’t legally close the doors, but “financially you can. If suppliers stop shipping to you because you don’t have cash to pay them, your doors are closed.” As of Nov. 17, according to Mark Robinson, chief financial officer, there is only a 14-day cash flow available. One of the nurses told BenitoLink that she had heard some vendors are already refusing to sell to the hospital.
The only reference to the filing was when Robinson said in the Nov. 17 meeting that, “It’s been a daily process for the administrative team to work through the information and evaluation of the process and we are doing that on a daily basis. Some of it just takes time before reporting on it.”
One option that some community hospitals have taken to pull out of bankruptcy is either partnering with other hospitals or conducting outright sales, as was the recent case of the Watsonville Community Hospital, per the Pajaronian. When BenitoLink asked Jeri Hernandez, chair of the board, whether the board was considering selling, she said the hospital is not for sale. She also said no one will be fired, yet could not say, because it is a personnel matter, why Sherrie Bakke, director of patient and community engagement/business development, was terminated on Nov. 11. She did say Bakke is the only person she was aware of who had been terminated.
On Nov. 15 BenitoLink spoke with Diane Beck, a registered nurse in the medical/surgical department, who has been at the hospital for 12 years. She is also a chief nurse representative with California Nurses Association.
Beck said she learned about the Nov. 4 meeting the day before only because another nurse sent a text asking what was going on, that there was an emergency meeting with the physicians, to be followed by another with the nurses. When she was later told the board was going to file Chapter 9 she sent a text to a labor representative. An emergency email was sent to all the nurses to attend the board meeting the next day.
“We have not been told anything since that meeting,” Beck said. “The nurses are very concerned. We need to know what’s going on. We keep learning everything through the media, which is not right. They need to sit down with us, sit down with the community. We should be working together on this.”
She said those who work at the hospital also live in the community and pay taxes that go to the hospital.
“They should be transparent enough to sit down and talk to us,” she said. “I’m pretty sure the community has no idea what’s going on other than what they learn from the media. It’s very disturbing.”
She also wondered, “How can the district go from discussing a $250 million expansion and they just got done spending $2.2 million on a building by the post office, and expand the physical therapy department, and now they go from those steps to filing Chapter 9? It doesn’t make any sense to us and we’re confused. We want to know what’s going on. How did this all happen?”
Several nurses spoke of their concerns at the Nov. 4 meeting. One, who said her name was Ariana, wanted to assure the community that the nurses’ first priority was the health of the community. She said from the facts they were given the hospital is in debt millions of dollars and wondered if bankruptcy proceedings would affect the staff. Since the board was not allowed to answer during public comments she did not get an answer.
Another nurse said, “It’s scary and frustrating. This has been going on a really long time. We love the new equipment, so where did that money come from? Some of the old equipment was just as good and we didn’t need to buy brand new machines. It’s not just Medicare. There’s been mismanagement of the money. You should look into an audit. The last notification you gave we were in the black and you were spending money like it was water.”
RN Ida Erickson said she had been working at the hospital for 25 years. She said when she first came to the hospital it was facing bankruptcy but “pulled through it.”
“And here we are, 25 years later and it feels like we fell off a cliff,” she said. “The bottom line is we are Hazel Hawkins Hospital. We love this hospital. Please tell us what to do so we can help the hospital.”
RN Valerie Victory said she was born in the hospital, and raised her children in Hollister.
“I’m shocked because this is all news to us,” she said. “I know we stopped accepting Blue Cross, but some money is better than no money. We’re spending all this money and hired a lot of people. Why are we hiring all these people when we have no money? Are there ways to cut corners to save this hospital?”
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