Another trio of finalists in Bartlett Regional Hospital’s long and troubled search for a new chief executive officer is scheduled to visit Juneau next week, including an Oklahoma candidate accused of financial improprieties in awarding contracts who earlier this year said he was retiring as the CEO of his current hospital and considering running for political office.
The candidate, in an interview Thursday, said he rejected running for office and as a former Alaska health official can envision working another “four to five years” as Bartlett’s CEO.
Also, while acknowledging fault in the most significant contracting complaint, he said it was due to complicated regulatory language, the fault was quickly acknowledged and the hospital worked with state lawmakers on new language that will take effect later this year.
David Keith, chief strategy officer for McAlester Regional Health Center in McAlester, Oklahoma, was among six candidates interviewed earlier this year, but not among the initial list of three finalists. But two of those finalists dropped out in early June, one day before the first in-person interview in Juneau was scheduled, resulting in Bartlett’s board extending the search.
Keith was McAlester’s president and CEO between 2011 and his retirement from that position in February. He said he explored a run for the state legislature as a Republican, but “my wife and I decided it wasn’t in my interests, and it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
He told a McAlester newspaper “I’ve been in health care 39 years, almost 11 years in McAlester” when explaining his retirement as CEO to become an adviser. But in Thursday’s interview he said “there’s a difference between vocation and avocation,” and 10 years of administrative and operational leadership experience in Alaska, including at Providence Alaska Medical Center and Alaska Native Medical Center, sparked his interest in seeking Bartlett’s CEO job.
“Bartlett Regional Hospital and McAlester’s hospital are similar in governance,” he said.
Allegations about Keith were also raised in 2020 about a contract for janitorial and linen management services contract being awarded without competitive bidding and a 2011 consulting contract between the hospital and a limited liability company owned by Keith’s wife.
An internal hospital investigation into the janitorial contact, plus one by attorneys the hospital hired, found no intentional wrongdoing. The consultant company stated no conflict of interest occurred in his wife’s contract because it was awarded a month before Keith became the hospital’s CEO.
Keith, in Thursday’s interview, said the bidding mistake occurred because “the public service trust laws are very confusing.”
“It took our attorneys three weeks to figure out we made a mistake,” he said.
That finding prompted Keith and other officials to seek clarifying language from the Oklahoma Legislature, which he said will take effect this November.
“We corrected this not only for us, but for the state,” he said.
Keith said he did not disclose the contract issue to Bartlett’s board of directors since no intentional wrongdoing was found and he wasn’t initially named a finalist.
Erin Hardin, a spokesperson for Bartlett, stated in an email the final pick for a new CEO will be well-vetted.
“The interview process affords multiple opportunities for vetting candidates, including an interview in executive session to discuss sensitive matters,” she wrote. “As a next step of this process members of the public are encouraged to engage with candidates during their meet-and-greet events next week, and ask questions about their background and why they want to lead our community hospital and provide feedback to the board.”
The other two finalists include one carried over from the finalist search suspended in June and an additional candidate from a pool of six applicants interviewed earlier this year include, respectively:
— Jeffery Hudson-Covolo, vice president for patient care services and chief nurse executive of Sierra View Medical Center in Porterville, California, since January of 2014. In March of this year he was named one of 66 Becker’s Healthcare CNOs to Know nationally (of 37,475 registered).
“Being a servant leader is about establishing relationships to be able to build mutual trust and respect,” he told The Sun Gazette newspaper after winning the award. “This framework leads to teams being able to be resilient and masterful during a crisis or providing healthcare on an everyday basis.” Previously he has worked as the chief operating officer or CNO for four hospitals in Illinois, Florida and California during a 10-year period.
— Dennis Welsh, vice president for rural health transformation and executive director of the University of Maryland Shore Medical Center in Chestertown, Maryland, since April 2021. His experience includes two decades of senior leadership experience in rural healthcare settings including three years as president and CEO of Down East Community Hospital in Machias, Maine, and 13 years at Eastern Maine Health Care Systems’ Charles A. Dean Memorial Hospital in Greenville, Maine. Among his cited accomplishments in his current position is what a local newspaper called a successful effort to prevent the facility from being downgraded to an outpatient care center by having it designated as state’s first Maryland Rural Hospital.
Bartlett’s board will interview each candidate in executive session next week and each is scheduled to participate in public meet-and-greets in the lecture hall at the Andrew P. Kashevaroff Alaska State Library, Archives & Museum at 395 Whittier St. Hudson-Covolo’s is scheduled next Monday from 5-6 p.m., Welsh from 5-6 p.m. Tuesday and Keith from 5-6 p.m. next Friday.
BRH is seeking a new permanent CEO after going through multiple CEOs during a 20-month period ending last October.
The retirement of Chuck Bill in early 2021 after six years in the position resulted in Chief Financial Officer Kevin Benson serving as interim CEO until Rose Lawhorne was named the permanent replacement in the spring of 2021. However, she resigned and then was fired by the board six months later after an inappropriate personal relationship with a subordinate staff member, and Kathy Callahan briefly came out of retirement to fill the position until Jerel Humphrey was named interim CEO, which he will remain until a permanent CEO begins.
Other leadership turmoil has occurred recently, including the departure of Vlad Tocaas, COO, the resignation of Kevin Benson as CFO and the resignation of Bradley Grigg as chief behavioral health officer.
In January, the hospital announced a new hospital leadership structure that, according to Hardin at the time, resulted as Humphrey “came in and has done an evaluation and determined it made sense to go back to the prior, streamlined organization.”
• Juneau Empire reporter Mark Sabbatini can be reached at email@example.com.