The little hospital and clinic that provide basic care in Southern Humboldt could soon get a new board of directors, in a vote that's in part a referendum on the controversial hospital director.
The Southern Humboldt Community Healthcare District has been through a bankruptcy and bouts of heavy turnover, and now is in a heated election for three of the five seats on its board.
Although his name doesn't appear on the ballot, the race revolves in large part around Harry Jasper, the health care district's combined CEO/CFA, now in his third year on the job.
The current board is broadly supportive of Jasper, but that the tight relationship may not last. Three of the six candidates for the district's three open seats have criticized his performance.
"He's good at finances, but he has terrible people skills," says Judi Gonzales, who's running for a two-year seat left open by the April resignation of board member Mary Krissie Branzei. Gonzales, long an outspoken critic of Jasper, points to the dozens of longtime hospital employees who were laid off or who resigned since Jasper's arrival in 2009, and to falling numbers of patient visits.
Even his critics, Gonzales included, say that Jasper has turned the health care district's finances around. After going through bankruptcy in the early 2000s, the district spent most of the last decade struggling to stay above water, even after the passage of a parcel tax to prop it up.
One of the biggest problems has been that a large share of the district's patients are low income, and pay for care with help from Medicare and Medical. That makes it difficult for the district to recoup the costs of running its emergency room. To stay fiscally health, Jasper and others have said, the district must keep track of every penny spent caring for those patients.
While previous administrators struggled to get paid in full, Jasper, trained in both finances and health care administration, has had success at tracking and getting paid for patient-care expenses. Revenue is up, and although it remains dependent on the parcel tax, the hospital is in the black for the first time in years.
That's earned Jasper the admiration of his employers on the current board of directors.
"Harry is - so far what I've experienced - very professional, very thorough with what he's doing in regards to maintaining the [district's] fiscal health," says Clif Anderson, the interim board member who holds the seat vacated by Branzei. Anderson took the seat in July, and says that while he wasn't aware of Jasper's relationship with the district's lower-level employees, he sat in on one department head meeting and liked what he saw. "I was very impressed at how well they work together," he says. "I was impressed with his leadership abilities."
His critics say, though, that the apparent cohesion is only because Jasper has removed everyone who didn't agree with him. Although turnover has always been high in the health care district, it almost doubled in the first two years after Jasper's arrival, with many longtime employees among those leaving.
"The thing that disturbs me most is the employee turnover," says candidate Karen Ruth. She says as a board member, she would like to contact former employees and find out why they left.
Personnel matters should be left to the chief executive, says Corrine Stromstad, an incumbent board member running for reelection. (The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors appointed Stromstad to the health care district board in 2010. She previously had ran against and received fewer votes than Judi Gonzales. In a July interview, 2nd District Supervisor Clif Clendenen said he couldn't recall exactly why the board chose Stromstad over Gonzales.)
"The only employee we [the board] have is Harry," Stromstad says, and he has done wonders for the district's financial health. As to why any particular person left or was fired, she says, "I really didn't get involved in the how-come or what-for."
"Oh, he is the only employee? Wow, what a concept," says candidate Beth Bennett-Allen, referring to Stromstad's comment. "No, they don't have one employee and I think that may be at the base of the problem. There are many, many people there that are to be considered and protected."
Candidate David Ordonez could not be reached for comment.