12/18/08 — State names interim director at Cherry Hospital

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State names interim director at Cherry Hospital

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 18, 2008 1:46 PM

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Carl Fitch

Carl Fitch, a Compass Group consultant on site at Cherry Hospital since October, has been named interim director of the hospital effective Jan. 1, Department of Health and Human Services officials announced Wednesday.

Dr. Jack St. Clair, Cherry director since 2005, announced Friday his plans to leave the position at the end of the year. He will move to the role of business manager at Black Mountain Neuro-Medical Treatment Center, where he had previously worked from 1985 until 1994.

Fitch has been working closely with St. Clair. Three representatives from Compass Group were hired by the state to assist the hospital in regaining its federal funding, which was pulled by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid in September.

Fitch, 66, has worked with Compass as a senior consultant since 2005. In that capacity he has served as interim chief executive officer in four hospitals. Prior to that, he was a permanent CEO at a number of hospitals around the country.

In his role as a consultant, he has gotten used to living out of a suitcase and being sent where needed. It's also a job that requires adaptation and flexibility.

"I didn't come here expecting to be given this assignment, but I'm looking forward to taking on the additional role of CEO," he said Wednesday.

He and the other two Compass representatives will also continue working on-site, he added.

"I will be doing consulting still to help with getting the CMS accreditation back as well as the day-to-day operations," he said. "In the month and a half I have been here, I have met the staff -- I know them, they know me. It's a good group of people. I'm looking forward to working with them.

"I think this is a great hospital and 99 percent of the people are doing a good job, but we need to identify methods to recruit the right people and keep the right people in their positions."

At the same time, he noted, "There's a lot of people around here that are sorry to see Jack go."

Several staff members approached the News-Argus asking to express their dissatisfaction over the news of St. Clair's departure. They later declined to give their names, citing fear of losing their jobs.

St. Clair also chose not to comment on the particulars of the announcement.

Instead, he focused on efforts being made to improve Cherry Hospital.

"I'm pleased that the Secretary (Dempsey Benton of the Dept. of Health and Human Services) has been responsive to requests we and Compass have made about some additional initiatives that we feel are important to be implemented," he said. "We have just been given an indication from the state that we're going to be able to roll out alternatives to de-escalation and intervention techniques with our staff here."

The hospital will move to adopt the "critical prevention initiative curriculum," which Fitch described as a process used to help the staff de-escalate crisis situations without handling patients, except as a last resort.

Two other initiatives are also being introduced -- a pre-employment psychological screening program and expanding its pre-employment drug screening program to include random drug testing -- with Cherry serving as the pilot program for the state, Fitch said.

Working in a psychiatric institution requires unique capabilities, as does dealing with patients exhibiting violent tendencies or addictions. To ensure staff is equipped to handle the requirements is essential, both men said.

"Not everybody is suited to work in this environment," St. Clair said. "If we had some better tools to identify aptitude and ability ... we would have a much better staff to work with this patient population."

Implementing such programs would help identify individuals as suitable, or not suitable, to work in a mental health institution, Fitch said.

The resources were discussed long before St. Clair's departure was announced, he said.

"For that matter, some of these things were recognized perhaps even before Compass was here. So we can come in and perhaps make objective recommendations on these things, but the staff has been working on this kind of thing before."

St. Clair said he and Fitch have been meeting regularly since the consulting group was brought on board, and will continue to do so for the remainder of the month.

"Carl has extensive experience and background in this area, as a CEO," he said. "The information that I have shared with him is not unfamiliar to him. He knows how to manage a hospital, and I have every confidence that we won't miss a beat as we continue to undergo this transition."

"Jack's been debriefing me ever since this announcement was made," Fitch said. "It should be a smooth transition."

St. Clair also attempted to dispel any notions that recent situations spell trouble for Cherry's future, particularly its plans to build a new facility.

"We continue to have regular dialogue with architects who are designing our hospital," he said. "We're still moving forward in an aggressive way, finishing up the design work for our new hospital, breaking ground sometime next summer, hopefully. We'll continue to move forward. We're going to have a new hospital and I'm real tickled about that."

Fitch called the prospects "one of the positive things" and said there are probably more as well.

"In the new facility, everything will be under the same roof rather than 14 buildings -- which makes extremely poor logistics and has built-in communication issues, built-in visibility issues between staff and administration and administration and staff," he said. "(The new hospital) will help eliminate some of those kind of facility issues that exist today."

Tom Lawrence, director of public information for the state Department of Health and Human Services, confirmed that the new hospital project is still on track, but said that top officials with the department and with the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services would not be commenting on the current situation at Cherry.