Crittenden County Judge Woody Wheeless
said that since he was elected country judge almost two years ago, he has seen a pattern of neglect from the leadership of Crittenden Regional Hospital
, which was forced to shut its doors this week after years of financial struggle.
We reported yesterday on a lawsuit that has been filed
alleging that the hospital withheld money from employees' paychecks for health insurance premiums, but never actually paid the claims, potentially leaving their employees on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in medical care they were told was covered by their health insurance.
"If these allegations are true that they did this to these employees ... to me, these are criminal charges, in my opinion, if you’re taking money out of somebody’s check in good faith and you don’t follow through on your end," Wheeless said. "I know from the county standpoint, I believe I would be in jail today if I did our county employees that way."
Asked whether the allegations undercut his confidence in the hospital board, Wheeless responded:
My confidence was lost in the hospital board 20 months ago when I became the county judge. The county has an agreement with the hospital board, because we own the property and we lease the property to Crittenden Hospital Association. In that agreement it states that they will provide financials to the county judge on a monthly basis. I’m in month 21, and have never received monthly financials. I’ve constantly asked the CEO [Gene Cashman] for them, and he’s always saying, ‘I’ll get those to you, I’ll get those to you next week.’ And next week never came.
Cashman has not responded to requests for comment.
Wheeless said that the information that the hospital was closing came as a shock after he had been involved in efforts to push for a voter-approved one-cent sales tax to try to save the hospital. "The hospital CEO, the board of directors, they’ve shared no information with me at all," he said. "I'm the landlord, if you really want to call it that, and I get notified just like John Doe citizen that they're closing." State Sen. Keith Ingram
, a past chairman of CRH, broke the news to Wheeless, along with current president of the hospital board David Raines
A devastating June fire that left the hospital without revenue for six weeks was cited as the final nail in the coffin, but Wheeless said he is unsatisfied with that explanation.
"I think everybody in this community was caught off guard [by the closing]," Wheeless said. "Nobody saw this coming. We all know without a doubt that the hospital has experienced financial issues for quite some time, but they sold this one cent sales tax to the public that this was going to be what was going to get them over that hump and get them back up and running again. I’m not sure what turned the tables. I know they’re saying the fire turned the tables, but they had insurance for that fire. They had loss-of-income insurance for the fire. So I’m kind of confused how the fire is what put them out of business."
Wheeless said many in the community have questions about the role of Memphis-based Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare
, which entered into an affiliation and consulting agreement with CRH in 2012. Cashman was recruited as CEO by Methodist, which was his direct employer. Wheeless said that "every day" he hears rumors that the hospital was being run into the ground so that Methodist could open a facility in the area without taking on CRH's debts and liabilities. "I really believe there's probably some merit to that," he said. "That's what the public feels like is going on today. The public was fed one story, and when the public fulfilled their part of the story [the sales tax], then the hospital didn't fulfill theirs. They were very convincing to the public that if you passed this tax, we're going to be good and we won't have any more issues. Well, the public passed that tax, and they closed before they even collected a dollar. It's mind-boggling."
Methodist was brought in to help right CRH's financial ship, but Wheeless said he saw no evidence that it had helped. "I tried to ask the hospital board the first part of the year, help me understand what the benefit is to having Methodist over here," he said. "Because I have yet to figure out what the benefit is. You’re paying a man [Gene Cashman] an ungodly amount of money to produce and he’s not producing. To be honest with you, the relationship with Methodist—just from the public on the outside looking in—it appears that this whole situation of bad finances was escalated with them being a partner."
Everyone involved agrees that the penny sales tax for the hospital should now be rescinded, though there is disagreement about the means to do so. Ingram sued the Department of Finance and Administration
in order to get a temporary restraining order to stop the collection of the tax for the hospital, set to go in effect Oct. 1. He said that he wanted to stop collection until the tax could be overturned either by a new referendum or other means. A circuit court judge will rule next week on whether the restraining order will stay in place — the country attorney believes that the collection of the tax can only be legally stopped by a new popular vote undoing the tax.