The mysterious wave of abrupt departures began when the WellStar board shocked the community by cutting ties with system CEO and cardiologist Dr. Greg Simone in September. WellStar executive VP and general counsel Bonnie Wilson was fired at the same time, with no public explanation as to why. Simone got $2.76 million in severance pay from the board and Ms. Wilson $856,000. Both Simone and Wilson (who drew up her own contract) got two years' severance.
WellStar Board of Trustees Chairman Randall Bentley's sole comment at the time was that "it was time for a change."
The news of the second round of purges came early last week via an intermediary for the two fired execs but was not disclosed until after questions by the MDJ. The intermediary for Dr. Richard Lopes, senior VP and president of the WellStar Medical Group, which runs the system's 350-doctors-strong physicians network; and senior VP and chief information officer Ron Strachan confirmed they had parted ways with the system, we were told.
WellStar spokesman Keith Bowermaster issued a terse, 62-word email announcing the "resignations," adding that it would be "the only statement to be provided" by WellStar and Bentley. Bentley then declined to offer an explanation or return the MDJ's phone calls.
High-ranking execs don't typically voluntarily resign from well-compensated jobs in pairs. This isn't Noah filling the Ark two-by-two.
As it turns out, Lopes and Strachan were fired without warning or prior notice March 21 at the direction of interim CEO Jim Budzinski, then "escorted" out of WellStar's headquarters on Sandy Plains Road and told not to return. But because they were fired without "cause," WellStar must pay them an aggregate $1.053 million in severance, based on Lopes' salary of $562,660 and Strachan's $288,766. Dr. Lopes started working at WellStar in April 2010 and Strachan is a three-year employee. Both execs' employment contracts included 90-day notice periods and a year's severance pay if they are fired without cause, say their attorney, Ben Mathis of Marietta, who also represented Dr. Simone.
Suspicion is strong that Lopes and Strachan were about to blow the whistle on their "concerns" about Budzinski to the board, but that he beat them to the punch. But it's highly unlikely an interim CEO would take such a drastic step without the foreknowledge and approval of higher-ups.
Mathis confirmed to AT that Lopes and Strachan had contacted him several days prior to their firings and were preparing to contact trustees about their concerns, and that word of their plans apparently leaked out, prompting their abrupt terminations.
On the other hand, some speculate that Lopes' and Strachan's whistle-blowing was meant to derail Budzinski, the chief financial officer, who is thought to have the inside track to be named permanent CEO and seems to have the backing of Bentley. Others, including Simone, say the top WellStar job should go to a physician, not a numbers-cruncher.
NOW THAT THE FIRINGS and the power struggle have moved from backstage to the front page, Bentley on Monday called a special meeting of the WellStar Trustees for tonight to discuss the firings in executive session. The board by law would have to vote to go into private session, and then reconvene to take any formal votes. But there's no law that says personnel matters have to be discussed in private session. In fact in a case like this, with millions of dollars and the leadership of one of the county's biggest public employers at stake, good arguments can be made that the discussion should be in public.
And as one supporter of the fired execs put it, "I think Randall is a week late calling a board meeting. This should have all been hashed out at a board meeting and not by an interim CEO (like Budzinski)."
Bentley supporters, meanwhile, say he is not a supporter of the WellStar status quo but instead is trying to work behind the scenes for needed changes at the $1.5 billion health-care system.
Several WellStar watchers not involved in the controversy tell AT that regardless of the outcome, the WellStar board needs to clamp down on the overly generous severance payments it has been handing out.
"These are not market rates," one fellow WellStar exec observed.
SOME QUESTIONS: Will the hospital board tonight delve into fired execs' complaints? Or will it try to sweep everything under the rug? And does it plan to keep the community in the dark about what is happening at our biggest and most acclaimed hospital?
WELLSTAR cancelled the Monday groundbreaking ceremony for its new $12 million inpatient hospice facility because of rainy conditions. The four-acre tract is located at 475 Dickson Ave., off of Kennesaw Avenue near WellStar Kennestone Hospital. The facility will be adjacent to Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park and behind Signature Health Care.
The new hospice will be built by support from the community and the WellStar Foundation, headed by President Tracy Atwater. It will include 18 private rooms, each with a screened porch, and a mountain deck will overlook heavily-wooded grounds. The architecture is craftsman style, resembling a mountain lodge. The project is close to being funded, with a shortfall of $186,000, said WellStar official Katie Lopez, adding work on site preparation is still under way and construction should begin in the next few weeks. The new hospice is projected to open in spring 2012.
WellStar Community Hospice is one of Georgia's oldest hospital-based hospices. Organized at WellStar Kennestone Hospital in 1981, the program offers care in a patient's residence, whether in a private home, assisted living facility, or nursing home, along with inpatient care at Tranquility - an 18-bed facility located near WellStar Cobb Hospital in Austell. Built in 1998, Tranquility was the first such facility in northwest Georgia. Hospice focuses on the provision of comfort care for those living with a life-limiting illness.
IF, AS EXPECTED, the Cobb Board of Commissioners chooses to cut the budget rather than raise taxes, much of the blade is expected to aim at public safety and the court system, which got off fairly easy in earlier rounds of cuts.
The commissioners got some specifics on what that might mean late last week from Fire Chief Sam Heaton, who drew up three proposals for meeting the $6.5 million shortfall in the Fire Fund.
“Options 1 and 2 will likely reduce our ISO (Insurance Services Office) rating from 3 to 4 or possibly 5, which in turn could cause an increase in homeowner’s insurance rate from $20 to several hundred dollars per year,” he wrote. “Insurance rates vary depending on several things including but not limited to: Credit rating, Previous claims history of that and your neighbors, area, zip code, census tract, type of structure, risk, value (not assessed value, but actual value), contents, etc.”
Option 1 would end the use of Advanced Life Support systems, shut down eight rescue units, one ladder truck and eliminate 82 positions from the 650-person department.
Option 2 would shut down four ladder trucks, close Station 27 on Veterans Memorial Highway, and eliminate 75 positions and 33 unfunded positions.
The consequences of either of those two options would include longer response times (of up to 10 minutes), less reliability (due to fewer units), increased danger to firefighters and the public due to staffing issues, increased property damage due to lack of response capabilities, “extremely long responses” during storms, higher maintenance costs per vehicle, shorter life expectancy for vehicles and the loss of newer employees.
Option 3 is raising the tax rate by 0.6 mills (which would cost the owner of a house valued at $200,000 an estimated $48 per year.
Concludes Heaton, “It is our estimate that the homeowner will be paying additional monies per year for homeowner’s insurance and getting less services versus paying additional monies per year for property taxes and keeping the same services.”
LEADERSHIP COBB 2011 will hold a concert and silent auction from 6:30-11 p.m. April 8 to benefit The Center for Children & Young Adults Inc. in Marietta. The event will feature The Fabulous Classics and take place at the Earl Smith Strand Theatre. Cost is $25 per person. ... Former state Rep. Rob Teilhet (D-Smyrna) is the new executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters, a statewide nonpartisan organization committed to turning environmental values into Georgia priorities.
SYNDICATED columnist Jackie Gingrich Cushman, daughter of the former House speaker, will be the main speaker at the April 5 meeting of the Cobb Young Republicans, reports Chairwoman Katelyn Ledford. The meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. at Simpatico. Scott Johnson, immediate past chairman of the Cobb Republican Party, has endorsed Marietta’s Tricia Pridemore in the contest for state party chair. She’s trying to unseat incumbent Sue Everhart of east Cobb.