04/03/09 — Hospital's new director: Cherry 'on track'

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Hospital's new director: Cherry 'on track'

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 3, 2009 1:46 PM

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Phillip Cook

With nearly a week already under his belt, new Cherry Hospital Director Phillip Cook said Thursday he is encouraged by what he has seen at his new post so far.

"There have been no surprises at this point," he said. "I think there are a lot of folks who are doing a good job and who want to help the hospital correct some of these issues."

Primary among those issues -- and the one that led to the state psychiatric facility losing its federal funding from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid -- was the death of a patient after he was left unattended for 22 hours.

That incident, along with others, has resulted in the suspension or termination of at least seven employees and criminal charges against six.

Those incidents also prompted the state to bring in an outside consultant group, Compass Inc., to help oversee the creation and implementation of a plan of correction -- and ultimately to manage the hospital on an interim basis once former director Dr. Jack St. Clair resigned his post for a position at Black Mountain Neuro Medical Treatment Center.

However, Cook said he feels confident the situation he is stepping into is one that is on its way up.

"There have been some problems well-documented, but I feel we have a good foundation to build on," he said. "I feel like our workers want be guided and directed to be successful."

And, given the work already done by Compass and its interim leadership team, he is confident the hospital is on the right path.

"I think we're making good headway. I'm fortunate to come into this with actions already well under way," he said. "It's just a matter of daily accountability."

But, he acknowledged there's still a lot of work to do and that it will take some time.

"Unfortunately this is not uncommon in behavioral health," he said. "There's a lot of scrutiny, and that's fine, we're not ducking it. But behavioral health is a very hard industry and that means many more inspections than our medical counterparts."

Fortunately, he said, he has some experience at this kind of hospital turnaround, having led Parkridge Valley Hospital in Chattanooga, Tenn., overseen seven hospitals in Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee and Mississippi, and worked as a consultant in the behavioral health field.

Additionally, he began his career in mental health as a therapist in New Bern and Morehead City.

He explained that he became aware of Cherry's troubles last year while he and his wife were visiting family in their native Craven County.

"I've been able to be very successful working to turn around hospitals that are struggling," he said. "And I thought it would be an honor to help a hospital like Cherry."

So after submitting his application to state Depart-ment of Health and Human Services Secretary Lanier Cansler, he was selected and began work on Monday.

And while he is still working to familiarize himself with the hospital, its processes, its personnel and its challenges, he does plan on making his mark soon.

"It's a big operation. There's a lot for me to learn," he said. "That's the first stage of this -- a learning process.

"Then over the next few months we will be working -- from top to bottom, from the executive team to the front-line workers -- to establish a plan of action for the next year and coming years."

And while he said that he is "hesitant to give a timeline," he thinks Cherry can regain its federal certification within a "reasonable period of time."