Amid outcry, Gallup hospital board promises open meetings and more transparency

By: - October 19, 2021 5:43 am

A town hall meeting on Oct. 2 in Gallup drew dozens of residents and health care workers to discuss the state of Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital, which announced in late September it would close its labor and delivery unit. Physicians at the hospital formed a union to combat what they say is mismanagement by an out-of-town company. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

The chairman of the Gallup hospital board announced Monday that the public would soon be allowed into sections of board meetings, following weeks of criticism that the hospital is being mismanaged and the board is too secretive. 

Chairman Steve McKernan made the announcement at the beginning of Monday’s three-hour special meeting of the McKinley County Commission, one called in response to upheaval at the Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital. 

In the last few weeks, the hospital’s labor and delivery unit closed due to a staff shortage and a new doctors’ union formed to push back on the interim CEO Don Smithburg. Union organizers said Smithburg has created a toxic work environment, one that is pushing out longtime nurses and other medical staff.

Among the union’s demands were more transparency from the board, which appointed Smithburg and has a history of questionable financial decisions. The board’s meetings were held in private. 

A state audit last year found previous members of the board had a too-cozy relationship with a member who got a construction contract and that executive compensation for a former CEO was too high. 

But on Wednesday, Oct. 20, at 1:30 p.m., the public will be able to sit in on a meeting of the Board of Trustees at a church near the hospital, a location chosen for ease of access, McKernan said. The public will be allowed to comment, and listen to the board and hospital administrators discuss recent financial reports and a new process for internal auditing, according to the agenda

The board will also begin publishing financial reports and other information, McKernan said. 

“For the sake of transparency, we’re going to post all of this, and make sure people have access to it,” he said. “The board intent is to work much closer to the community and make sure that we get a lot of feedback.”

Dr. Connie Liu, an organizer and doctor at the Gallup Indian Medical Center, told Source New Mexico that open meetings are a “really great” development but that she would still like to see more local board members and more community input in who gets nominated on the board. 

The meetings will be conducted in accordance with the state Open Meetings Act, which applies to governmental bodies, even though the RMCH board oversees a nonprofit organization. But the hospital building is owned by the county, and county residents pay property taxes toward hospital operations, including salaries.

The first public Board of Trustees meeting for the Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital will be at 1:30 p.m. at Grace Bible Church, 222 Boulder Drive, in Gallup and will be viewable on Zoom at this link.

McKernan’s comments kicked off a sometimes emotional meeting of Gallup-area community members, current and former hospital staff, administrators and elected officials. 

Smithburg defended his tenure as interim CEO by pointing to a huge financial shortfall he inherited, one that he blamed on the previous CEO and on the drying up of emergency federal funds used to fight the pandemic. In addition to staff departures, he laid off nearly 100 employees last year.

He also blamed a national nursing shortage as a major factor in the hospital crisis, but former staff members told commissioners that the toxic workplace was the main reason they left. Several current staff members who spoke said they feared retaliation. 

The County Commission took no action. But two commissioners warned Smithburg they would be paying attention to whether any of the employees who testified were fired or otherwise retaliated against. 

Smithburg also was given a chance to have the last word at the end of the three-and-a-half hour meeting, but he declined. 


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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.