The county commission overseeing a troubled Northwestern New Mexico hospital has taken a dramatic step to get things in shape there — threatening to expel the organization that has run it for 40 years.
McKinley County’s three commissioners voted unanimously Monday to end the county’s lease agreement with Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services, which runs a Gallup hospital by the same name. It serves patients in a 120-mile radius and is the biggest hospital in Gallup, apart from one run by Indian Health Services.
The vote means that the nonprofit that has run the 60-bed hospital since 1983 has 180 days to meet conditions set by the county or face being kicked out. McKinley County owns the hospital building and the land on which it sits, so commissioners have come under increasing pressure to use whatever leverage they have to force improvements there.
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Billy Moore, chairperson for the McKinley County Commission, said the commission is still working on determining the exact conditions that management must meet to stay in the hospital. He said he expects a list of conditions to be delivered in the coming weeks.
“We’ve been dealing with this for a little over a year, and it’s just we felt we needed to hold their feet to the fire and say we’re gonna give you 180 days to get things turned around,” Moore told Source New Mexico.
A spokesperson for the nonprofit’s Board of Trustees did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The board was also scheduled to have its regular meeting Wednesday, but it was canceled without explanation around 2 p.m. on Tuesday.
Two prominent professionals — an emergency department director and a longtime doctor — at the hospital recently left, citing poor conditions for patients and fears of retaliation by the hospital’s administration for raising concerns. They join a line of prominent doctors, plus nurses and other staff, who have left in recent months, citing the difficult conditions.
In addition to the departures, doctors at the hospital formed a union late last year, the only such physician union in the state. And a group of advocates has begun holding weekly protests. They are taking aim at Community Hospital Corporation, an out-of-state company contracted to run the hospital’s daily operations, and Don Smithburg, a senior vice president at the company who is also the hospital’s interim CEO.
In a public petition and at a town hall meeting this weekend, residents said they are demanding the contract with the company is terminated, and that the hospital group’s Board of Trustees is restructured. They’re also seeking the formation of a patient advisory board.
Rural hospitals across New Mexico and the country are facing financial difficulties due to the pandemic and staffing shortages. But former employees at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital say the administration is compounding those issues by failing to hear their concerns, putting patients at risk and creating a toxic work environment.
Commissioner Moore said he does not think the commission has the authority to demand termination of the contract with Community Hospital Consulting. Instead, he described some possible conditions for continuing the lease as “small things,” like ensuring the hospital has a permanent CEO, improving its financial stability and fully staffing the Board of Trustees.
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“We can say, ‘We recommend some things. We’d like to see these things happen,’” Moore said. “But as far as their day-to-day operations, we have no control over any of that.”
Moore said the vote put the commission in a difficult bind. They met in executive session to discuss the matter, he said. The worst case scenario, he said, is if Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services decides for whatever reason to leave altogether or not to meet the county’s new requirements.
“And we have to start all over again. What’s going to happen to our hospital during that time?” Moore said. “It’s one of those situations where you’re danged if you do, danged if you don’t.”
Connie Liu, a spokesperson for the advocacy group, said in a statement that the group is cautiously optimistic and grateful that the county took this action. They said they hope to work with the county going forward on next steps.
“It may take years to rebuild from the damage already done, but with a dedicated, engaged staff and community, and with leadership that staff and community members can trust, we believe that there is a way forward,” Liu said.
Known as the Community Hospital Action Group, the advocates plan to host a “Thank You County” rally Wednesday.
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