Dr. Griffin is interim Luis Hospital CEO


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ST. CROIX - Dr. Kendall Griffith will today take the helm at Luis Hospital as interim chief executive officer, after the hospital board appointed him to the post during an emergency meeting Saturday.

Griffith, an interventional cardiologist, will replace Jeff Nelson, who abruptly resigned the CEO position on Friday afternoon.

"I am humbled by the confidence the board has in me, that the physicians and the general staff have in me," Griffith, 45, said during a phone interview Sunday. "I am really dedicated to St. Croix, to the Virgin Islands, and I want to make a difference."

Hospital board chair Kye Walker said Nelson tendered his resignation Friday afternoon after a meeting between hospital officials and federal regulators from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who reported that in their opinion, the hospital had so far failed to achieve substantial compliance with a settlement agreement mandating improvements at Luis - improvements that must be implemented by Feb. 13.

Walker would not say whether or not the board had requested Nelson's resignation.

At Saturday's meeting, though, she made it clear that the board expects support for Griffith - and expects everyone to work together as a team to make the improvements that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, is requiring.

She said the issues facing the hospital "are larger than the board, larger than anyone in this room, and it's a community issue. It's a territorial issue."

Hospital officials have repeatedly warned that if the terms of the settlement agreement are not met by the Feb. 13 deadline, Luis could lose the ability to participate in Medicare and Medicaid, which means the hospital would not be reimbursed by the federal government for care provided to Medicare and Medicaid patients. Medicare in particular represents a large portion of hospital revenues.

Walker said she had already gotten calls from people questioning the decision to appoint Griffith - and she said the board would not be entertaining those discussions.

"Everyone has to pull together and get the work done for the community," she said. She noted that there would be no time for a transitional period.

"I want to make clear that it is not about who can work with whom, or someone's personality," she said in an interview. "The issues are larger than that."

Board members Joyce Heyliger, Imelda Dizon, Dr. Anthony Ricketts and Walker voted to appoint Griffith interim CEO. Board member Wallace Phaire, who joined the meeting by telephone, voted against the motion.

Resignation

It was not clear whether Nelson resigned of his own accord or the board requested it. Walker would not comment and Nelson did not return Daily News messages.

However, the resignation letter and Walker's reply accepting the resignation indicate that the two had discussed the matter Friday.

"Please accept this letter as my resignation notice per my employment contract. As detailed in my employment contract Section II, please accept this letter as my 45 day written notice of this resignation. As you requested, I will leave my position as Chief Executive Officer today," the letter from Nelson to Walker states.

Nelson goes on to thank the hospital's board and team for the opportunity to serve and wishes them "all the best."

The return letter from Walker accepting the resignation references a discussion and agreement that the hospital will pay Nelson's salary through the 45-day notice period, and states that the hospital "will have no further obligations to you after the 45 day period."

It goes on to thank Nelson for his service and to wish him the best in his future endeavors.

Nelson had just completed the second year of a three-year contract that called for him to receive $310,000 per year, although a salary listing provided by the hospital last week indicates that he had taken the same 8 percent pay cut that all government employees did.

Walker said Saturday that the hospital had experienced increased revenues and improved revenue collection under Nelson's tenure and commended him, thanking him for his service. Nelson was not at the meeting.

His tenure was also marked by a storm of controversy and the hospital's struggles to meet the mandates of the settlement agreement against the backdrop of decreasing government appropriations.

Settlement agreement

The settlement agreement with CMS contains myriad mandates for improvements aimed at fixing deficiencies the federal agency identified in previous hospital-wide inspections.

Although hospital officials have requested that CMS extend the Feb. 13 deadline for compliance with the settlement agreement, no extension has yet been granted.

CMS inspectors were at the hospital again this week, conducting another survey based on a complaint the agency received.

The post-survey exit interview with CMS on Friday is when hospital officials were told that, in the opinion of the inspectors, the hospital has not yet reached substantial compliance with the terms of the settlement agreement, Walker said.

In December, the hospital board came up with a plan to remove responsibility for clinical care areas from Nelson and place those areas - and implementation of the settlement agreement - under the responsibility of an interim chief operating officer with a clinical background, who would report directly to the board, not to Nelson.

This week, the board selected Griffith as the top candidate for that post, but after Nelson's departure, named Griffith interim chief executive officer instead.

Because the hospital now has someone with a clinical background in the interim CEO position, hiring a chief operating officer is no longer a priority, Walker said.

Interim CEO

Griffith said on Sunday that his goal as interim CEO is "to rebuild the quality of care that we once had and to make it even better than it was in the past."

He also has a goal to "regain the confidence of CMS," he said.

But most important, he said, is "to regain the confidence and trust in the community that we can provide the people of St. Croix and the rest of the Virgin Islands quality medical care - and I am confident we can do that."

"We have a great staff. We have excellent physicians and nurses that are dedicated and very knowledgeable and skilled and I think that we have all of the ingredients to become a very good health care facility," Griffith said.

Walker said Saturday that the Luis Hospital board had offered Griffith a salary of $250,000 as interim CEO, although that has to be approved by the territorial hospital board, which is scheduled to meet this week.

Griffith said that as interim CEO, he intends to use a phased approach to deal with the most pressing issues first.

His first priority is getting a revised plan of correction in to CMS and getting it approved, he said.

"That will give us a template as to how to progress," Griffith said.

He said another high priority item is to bring in more nurses, to help address quality of care issues and decompress the situation in the emergency room, where long wait times for patients who are being admitted has become an issue.

As for phone calls questioning the board's decision to appoint him interim CEO, Griffith said he looks forward to "creating cohesion within the organization."

"I think that no decision is going to be 100 percent accepted. I look forward to working with all the individuals in the hospital and winning the confidence of those that may not be as confident in my ability to lead," he said. "I think that united we will win as one; but divided we will fail as individuals, and the care of the community will fail as well."

Griffith

A St. Croix native, Griffith earned his medical degree at the University of Miami School of Medicine. He completed an internship and residency in internal medicine at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, and a fellowship and sub-specialty fellowship in cardiovascular disease and interventional cardiology at Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami. He is board-certified in several specialties.

When he returned to St. Croix, he established the first interventional cardiology program in the territory, at Luis Hospital, and performed the territory's first coronary angioplasty and successfully implanted the territory's first cardiac defibrillator, according to information about him that was read into the record at the board meeting. He was director of the V.I. Cardiac Center at the hospital before this appointment.

Griffith said Sunday he is ready to get to work as interim CEO.

"As of Monday, it's all hands on deck," he said. "We're going to have a mission to get this plan of correction in, to fix a lot of issues that exist, to not only satisfy CMS, but most importantly to satisfy the community."

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