Healthcare District Increases Workforce by 10 Percent

A significant beefing up of its in-house workforce is the latest sign of change at the Southern Humboldt Community Healthcare District.

The “hiring surge,” as it was termed during last week’s regular monthly meeting of the district’s governing board, has played out over the past month. During that time, six people have been brought on board to fill nursing-related positions previously handled by contract workers hired through agencies.

Two additional individuals, meanwhile, have been chosen for newly created management jobs. One is Patrick O’Rourke, who started as the district’s Foundation Director and Public Relations director two weeks ago. The other is Jason Dockins, who beginning next week will handle information technology matters along with Chief Operating Officer Kent Scown.

And there’s more. Judy Gallagher took over the reins of an already existing administrative position on Aug. 15 — that of Chief Nursing Officer and Director of Patient Care Services. Less than two weeks later, Troy Heatherwick, a clinical laboratory scientist, became the district’s latest laboratory manager.

“We’ve had lots of hires in the last 30 days,” Hunter Tucker, the district’s human resources manager, summed up during last week’s meeting.

Given that the district had 80 staffers a month ago, the 88 that it has now represents a 10 percent increase — not a small amount. The boost in personnel comes roughly five weeks after the district announced the departure of one physician — Dr. Marcin Matuszkiewicz is leaving next month — and the hiring of two others to take his place.

Dr. Tawfik Shabana is slated to start at the beginning of October, while Dr. Yousri Gadallah is expected to join the team at Jerold Phelps Community Hospital later in the year.

The driving force behind the changing nature of the district’s workforce, Chief Executive Officer Matt Rees, is of course still relatively new to the district himself. While Rees initially joined the district as interim chief financial officer last year, he wasn’t named CEO until this past February.

Speaking last Friday, Rees cited a number of reasons for the move away from hiring nurses on a contract assignment basis. One had simply to do with cost-cutting, in particular gaining more control over the amount of overtime the district has to pay along with reducing the amount it pays to the agencies providing the nurses.

Another had to do with the temporary and sometimes problematic nature of the contract nursing workforce.

“When you have temporary people or agency people, they tend to bring in their problems and issues. You get those resolved and then the next person comes in and it starts all over again. So you’re constantly working on problems instead of [on improving the quality of patient care,]” Rees explained.

Having nurses on staff instead “really helps in stabilizing the quality of care patients receive,” Rees went on, adding that it also pays dividends in terms of morale. “You get a happier, more teamwork-oriented atmosphere,” he said.

Rees indicated that the IT manager’s position — the job Dockins is filling — should take some of the load off Scown, a load that he said only promises to get greater once the district has a CT scanner up and running.

“I don’t want to have him put in more hours. He already puts in 40 hours a week,” Rees commented. “It could put the hospital at liability if [he’s] working 60 hours per week.”

As for the CT scanner, the initial hope was that it would be in place and operational before the end of the year. Last week, however, Rees gave April or May of next year as the likely start-date.

The scanner, an important diagnostic tool, will be housed in a modular facility located near the Emergency Room at Jerold Phelps Community Hospital.

In terms of O’Rourke’s job, Rees said that the basic reason for creating the position was “to help us raise money for a new facility.” Toward that end, he said O’Rourke will be charged with breathing some life into an important fund-raising tool: The hospital’s foundation.

“The hospital has a foundation but it’s been inactive for years,” Rees explained.

O’Rourke’s job will be critical given that the district needs to build a new hospital by 2030. Otherwise, it will be out of compliance with state seismic codes.

The 61-year-old O’Rourke, who has an extensive background in the management of nonprofit organizations but hasn’t done healthcare philanthropy before, confirmed Friday that “raising money for the new hospital will be the main thing eventually.”

But he said: “The first gig out of the box is to develop relationships throughout the district.”

“I’m going to be doing a lot of outreach” with organizations such as “community service districts, fire districts, water boards and sanitary districts,” he added.

When asked, he estimated the cost of a new facility “in the $40 million to $50 million range.”

“It increases by $1 million every year you wait,” he added.

While O’Rourke pointed out that the district plans to finance the building of a new hospital through a rural development loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said money needs to be secured from other sources as well.

“I guarantee it will happen. The motivation and intent is there and [the district] has put together most of the steps needed.” But he said something important is lacking: “An existing donor base.”

“The healthcare district is funded mainly by a parcel tax, so there’s been no organized philanthropy effort at the hospital. Developing those relationships can take [time] depending [on what you’re asking for],” he explained.

O’Rourke said that a typical approach “would be to set up a system where folks can give on an annual basis or give mid-size or significant gifts.”

“We’re starting from scratch in this area at the hospital district,” he added.

Given the rate of hiring at the district lately, it’s reasonable to wonder, given the housing shortage in Southern Humboldt, where all the new folks will be living. Tucker had a partial answer to that, saying that the district recently signed a lease agreement for four new apartments on Melville Road in Garberville.

“So we can sublease [those apartments] to some of the new employees,” she said.

When asked, she said that a couple of the new hires would likely not have accepted their job offers if these apartments had not been available.

As for whether the hiring binge is over, Rees said: “This is it as long as we can get people to stay.” Aside from the need to get a medical assistant in the not-too-distant future, Rees said: “Staffing should stay the same until we get the CT scanner.”

Then, he said, the district will need to hire someone “to do prior authorization paperwork” related to patients receiving CT scans.