Turnover turmoil at Health Center
Call it: A tale of two health centers.
While it would be an exaggeration to describe recent months at the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center under 'best of times, worst of times' scenarios, few close to the 23-year-old community medical clinic would deny it's been a boat sailing on choppy waters.
If the health center took two steps forward last year, it followed with what some are calling a big step back.
It was a year bookended on one side by the exciting opening of a state-of-the-art new facility, and on the other by the eyebrow-raising turnover and management-staff difficulties within the all-important behavioral-health division.
Caught in the crossfire, ostensibly, are the behavior unit's patients – who are at once hopeful for a top notch community health clinic, and yet concerned that staff-and-management infighting could stand in the way of the kind of quality care for which the center has been known.
It was just last July when the future looked brightest – that's when the Health Center moved into its new and improved digs at 19270 Sonoma Highway, after more than two decades at the dinkier, less suitable clinic at 430 West Napa St. The move was an 18,000-square-foot boon to the clinic, which serves nearly 7,000 low-income and uninsured Valley residents, built through $5 million in federal Affordable Care Act grant funds, as well as a large dose of goodwill and financial support from the Sonoma community.
Gone were the days when space was so tight that baby scales were crowded into the hallway, patients were seen in admin offices, and a laundry room served as a computer work station.
Now the 80 or so patients who visit the health center each day have a clinic twice its previous size, with adequate parking.
But the first cracks in the castle walls began to show soon after the grand opening – when irreconcilable differences between Health Center CEO Cheryl Johnson and longstanding behavioral unit doctors Richard Kirk and Jerry Silver led to Johnson's decision last September to not renew the doctors' contracts.
Or, to put it in their terms, they were fired.
Kirk, a pediatrician and psychiatrist for more than three decades, had been serving part-time at the Health Center for the last 10 years. Silver had served as chairman of the Behavioral Health Department at SVCHC for more than a decade.
The move to loftier climes and the relative luxury of their own Behavioral Health Service Center - with three separate consulting rooms – was a pleasant enough upgrade; yet, Silver and Kirk were disillusioned. They'd locked horns with Johnson in the two years since her hiring – they had deep differences in management philosophy, and the doctors felt their ideas weren't being taken seriously.
Silver describes Johnson's attitude toward their suggestions as 'dismissive of any problems we brought up.'
Earlier in the year, Kirk and Silver called for the formation of a special 'transition team,' which they'd organize, regarding the move into the new facility. They also said the clinic needed to appoint an outside consultant to 'assess and identify the strengths and weaknesses of the SVCHC's organizational functioning.'
Johnson concedes that she and doctors Kirk and Silver 'had fundamental differences about the way the Health Center should be run.' But, as Johnson points out, she was hired to run the center – not them.
Nevertheless, the doctors took their qualms to the Health Center board of directors. They said they lacked faith in Johnson's ability to manage the center, and ultimately called for her dismissal.
The board, however, remained wholly in support of Johnson.
Board President Richard Gantenbein, a pastor at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, says that beginning in July of 2014, the board became aware of 'performance issues' with Kirk and Silver relating to what he claims was a backlog of untended patients and resistance in the transition to electronic health records – a new system Johnson brought in known as NextGen.
Gantenbein says that strict Affordable Care Act regulations call for detailed electronic medical record bookkeeping, and that Medicare, Medicaid and other federal healthcare funding are in jeopardy if a clinic fails to comply. Kirk and Silver, he says, were failing to comply.
Gantenbein says this was the reason that Kirk, Silver – and a few weeks later family therapist Max Yusim – were let go.
He adds that his biggest complaint about Johnson is that she didn't let them go sooner.
Kirk, Silver, Yusim and another former member of the Behavioral Department's staff, Katie Bandy, paint a far different picture. They charge that Johnson's management style is so autocratic and argumentative that it made working at the health center a tense and unpleasant environment.