Bartlett Regional Hospital CEO David Keith and Chief Financial Officer Sam Muse have resigned from their positions at the hospital, both after less than a year into the job. Their departure comes in the wake of multiple controversies at the hospital, including recent accusations of “inhumane” treatment of patients and mismanagement of staff.
“This week, I have received and accepted the resignation of the CEO, David Keith,” stated Board President Kenny Solomon-Gross in an email sent to hospital employees Tuesday. “We will begin the process of ensuring a smooth transition for this position.”
Solomon-Gross later confirmed the resignation of Muse on Wednesday morning.
City and Borough of Juneau Manager Rorie Watt said he received word of Keith’s resignation Tuesday afternoon, saying he did not know the reason behind the decision.
“Yes it’s true — I don’t even know if I have a reaction yet,” he said. “I think we just now need to figure out how to get Bartlett on a stable course.”
A special meeting of the hospital’s board of directors is scheduled via Zoom at 7 a.m. Friday. The agenda states there will be an opportunity for public participation.
“This meeting will start in open session before moving into executive session to discuss the CEO’s resignation and an interim CEO,” Anita Moffitt, the hospital’s executive assistant, wrote in an email announcement.
Keith directed Empire inquiries to hospital spokesperson Erin Hardin. In an email Wednesday, Hardin stated Keith “submitted written notice of his resignation” to Solomon-Gross and shared the decision in an all-employee meeting “scheduled by senior leadership to answer employee questions about the Empire’s recent reporting.”
In a press release issued by the hospital Wednesday morning, Keith characterized his departure as a “retirement.”
“Over the past year we have addressed our financial crisis and put ourselves on a path to sustainability,” Keith said in a prepared statement. “After stepping back and reflecting on the organization’s many achievements, I am ready to return to retirement and enjoy time with my grandkids. My hope for the future is that there’s stronger unity between the Assembly and the Board about the strategic direction of the hospital.”
In an interview with the Empire in July of 2022, when he visited Juneau as a finalist for the job, he said he envisioned a much longer tenure.
“I can guarantee you I can give you four years, and I can accomplish a lot in those four years,” he said.
Keith is providing a 90-day transition period to help Bartlett’s board of directors recruit a new CEO, according to the press release.
A separate press release by the hospital Wednesday announced Muse tendered his resignation on July 26 and is also providing a 90-day transition period while a new CFO is recruited. He joined Bartlett in of August 2022 as the controller and became CFO in January of this year.
“At the end of the day, I hold my responsibility to my family above all else and so I made a personal decision based on what I felt best for us,” Muse said in a prepared statement. “I am proud of my time at Bartlett. I am proud of my coworkers at Bartlett. I will continue to be a strong advocate for the hospital.”
Issues at the hospital raised publicly by board members and doctors at a board meeting last Tuesday, and in other recent communications, include a critical shortage of psychiatrists qualified to treat behavioral health patients who show up, depriving such patients of necessary care while putting other patients and staff at risk. Concerns were also expressed about top management practices that resulted in numerous employees in key departments leaving the hospital, as well as misleading contract negotiations with prospective new hires.
Hardin, in her email, stated “the CEO and CFO departures are unrelated to each other, and to last week’s board meeting.”
“The concerns raised by a board member in last week’s board meeting are unrelated to the departure of two senior leaders,” she elaborated in a subsequent message. “The Empire’s decision to report the events together is a mischaracterization, leading the community to believe the events are related.”
Gross, in his email, stated that “despite the differences expressed in the recent board meeting, we all share the same goal — to deliver safe, quality patient care.”
“Over the last six months, the board has tasked leadership with making tough decisions to address the hospital’s finances, a situation they inherited, and has asked leadership to put the hospital on a path to sustainability,” he wrote. “This has required everyone to make changes — more in a relatively short time than I believe this organization has done in years. Growth can come from change, and I expect we will continue to experience change as we rise together to meet the shifting health care landscape and the needs of our community.”
A troubling two years for hospital leadership
The departure of Keith and Muse follows years of turbulent times for the hospital which has endured cycling through multiple CEOs during the past couple of years.
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 was then fired by the board after an inappropriate personal relationship with a subordinate staff member. Kathy Callahan briefly came out of retirement to fill the position until Jerel Humphrey was named interim CEO while the search for a new permanent leader was conducted.
Other leadership shakeups at that time included the departure of Chief Operating Officer Vlad Tocaas, the resignation of then-CFO Kevin Benson and the resignation of Bradley Grigg as chief behavioral health officer.
Keith officially began his role as CEO for the municipal-owned hospital on Aug. 15, 2022, receiving a salary of $400,000, $80,000 more than Lawhorne.
Previously Keith was a former top administrator at Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium/Alaska Native Medical Center and Providence Alaska Medical Center beginning in 2000, and then in 2011 became CEO and president of McAlester Regional Health Center in McAlester, Oklahoma.
During his time at the Oklahoma hospital, he was accused of financial improprieties in awarding a contract for janitorial and linen management services without competitive bidding in 2020. In an interview with the Empire when he was a finalist for the Bartlett CEO job, he said it was due to complicated regulatory language and the fault was quickly acknowledged. Also questioned was a 2011 consulting contract between the hospital and a limited liability company owned by Keith’s wife.
Keith announced his retirement as McAlester’s CEO in February of 2022 and explored a run for the state legislature as a Republican, but told the Empire “my wife and I decided it wasn’t in my interests, and it wasn’t what I wanted to do.” Instead, he applied for the job as Bartlett’s CEO, citing his previous experience in Alaska as sparking his interest in the job.
Keith was not among the initial list of three finalists for Bartlett’s CEO job last year, but he was reconsidered when two of those finalists dropped out one day before in-person interviews in Juneau were scheduled.
Bartlett’s board of directors unanimously selected Keith as the new CEO during its meeting on July 26, 2022, with members speaking highly of his resume and in-person interview conducted a few days earlier.
“From the beginning there were two things I wanted and one was very critical, and that was someone with good CEO experience in a hospital, and it was current and it was positive,” said Brenda Knapp, the board’s vice president at the time. “The other thing, and I didn’t think we’d get both of them, is if we could get somebody with prior experience in Alaska that would mean so much.”
Keith, in a speech to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce last November about his first 100 days on the job, acknowledged Bartlett was experiencing financial and employee struggles in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said a nationwide shortage of qualified providers and nurses was making enticing and sufficiently paying people to work in a small and relatively remote place like Juneau more difficult than in many other parts of the country.
“There’s not an Alaska hospital I’m aware of today that’s in the black,” Keith said. “They’re still in the red despite all those COVID dollars. In the last four months we’ve lost a few million dollars, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
However, Lindy Jones, a doctor at the hospital for 30 years and board member, wrote in a letter presented to the board last Tuesday that certain departments such as clinical technology, human resources and psychiatry are experiencing “an inordinately high rate of attrition” among employees for multiple reasons related to top management. Among the reasons are “unrealistic demands,” “threats of retaliation,” and receiving “different and less desirable” contracts than promised when hired.
Keith defended his management practices at the meeting, noting that while he does not directly negotiate contracts with prospective employees he also “will not sign a contract that will be outside the fair market value, period.” He also used words such as “archaic” to describe some of Bartlett’s policies, including what he called overly restrictive limits on the use of temporary employees in critical needs positions such as psychiatrists that could otherwise help address the behavioral health crisis.
“You want an administrative solution, then give the administration the tools to do its job,” he told the board.
• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at email@example.com or (651)-528-1807. Contact Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 957-2306.