With a 3-2 vote Monday night, the Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital’s governing board terminated Chief Executive Officer Ken Okolo’s contract, leaving several of the top management positions of St. Croix’s only hospital empty or in the hands of inexperienced and/or acting personnel.
Board Chair Troy de Chabert-Schuster, Treasurer Philip Arcidi and Secretary Aracelis de Hendry Walcott voted to terminate Okolo’s contract and return him to the status of chief operating officer, the chairman reported after an executive session. Vera Falu and Theresa Frorup-Alie voted against the measure, according to de Chabert-Schuster.
The same votes were cast to begin searching for a new CEO.
The board then hastily moved to adjourn the meeting and the board chair took questions from the media. He repeated seemingly rehearsed general statements but did not give a reason for the board’s action.
De Chabert-Schuster wouldn’t say why the board, after approving Okolo as CEO in February, had such as drastic change of heart last week. He blamed the action on the territorial board.
“The territorial board wanted us to reconsider the pay and terms,” he said, but wouldn’t answer what the concerns were.
De Chabert-Schuster said he assumes Okolo will accept the demotion that would decrease his salary from $350,000 to $200,000 plus benefits. Okolo was not at the meeting to answer the question.
In his place, the board named Richard Evangelista, formerly the hospital’s legal counsel and temporary director of human resources, acting chief executive officer. Last week, when the board placed Okolo on administrative leave with pay, Evangelista was designated administrator in charge.
There appeared to be little agreement and a lot of discussion among board members on the fate of the hospital’s administration, since an executive committee meeting that began around 3 p.m. did not end until almost 8 p.m. – three hours after an emergency board meeting was scheduled.
When board members finally appeared in the third floor conference room to begin the emergency meeting, their faces were grim. The board chair offered no apology for the three-hour delay although several members of the administrative medical staff, including physicians, had been waiting, with media, since 5 p.m. Another group of hospital employees also sat and waited – concerned about the fate of the CEO.
Chief Financial Officer Tim Lessing and Evangelista joined the board meeting as it began shortly before 8 p.m. They also were unsmiling. After the meeting, it was learned from a spectator, Gloryvee Christian-Krieger from Sen. Kurt Vialet’s office, and confirmed by de Chabert-Schuster that Lessing submitted a resignation letter last Friday.
De Chabert Schuster said Lessing’s letter had not been formally accepted and he didn’t know if Lessing’s attendance at the meeting meant he reconsidered leaving the CFO post.
Christian-Krieger asked how the hospital would be managed with so many vacant spots in upper management. The chairman said a job search would begin soon.
“It is heart-wrenching to see where this hospital is being taken to,” Christian-Krieger, a former 20-year JFL employee, said.
In the last few months, the chief nursing officer and medical director have been fired and the human resources director resigned. Those positions are still vacant. Evangelista now will be responsible for human resources as well as overall management of the hospital. Who will fulfill the duties of chief operations officer and financial officer is undetermined.
Several of the hospital staff members who waited for the board meeting also waited outside afterwards to speak to the media in support of Okolo. They were visibly angry and said they had a right to know about his future.
Emergency Room nurse Annette Joquin said it is difficult to boost staff morale when “they (the board) keep hiring and firing.” Okolo respected the staff, she said, and listened to and investigated complaints.
Another employee said a show of solidarity for Okolo was being organized to take place in the hospital lobby Tuesday.
“We passed CMS under Okolo’s tutelage. What went wrong?” Joquin asked.