published Sunday, January 27th, 2013

Cook: Hospital, heal thyself

Long on questions and short on answers, I do know one thing. Sure as shingles, if you have not been paying attention to the Erlanger crisis, it's time you started.


It's our hospital. This publicly owned Chattanooga tradition we call Erlanger.

And right now, multiple forces are laying their hands on Erlanger: physicians, Nashville legislators, University of Tennessee, appointed board members.

This tug-of-war could tear it apart.

Or Erlanger could become better and stronger than ever.

You know what it depends on? Sure you do. It's the same thing all good work depends on, the same thing that has potential to steer a ship away from danger or right off the cliff.


Responsible, honest, big-minded people.

And the question facing Erlanger and all of us: How do we ensure the best people are making the best decisions?

Thursday night, Erlanger's board of trustees met; I would have bet you a pint of O-positive the board was going to name a new CEO. In fact, I was told some of the board members there were ready to do just that.

And I would have personally delivered your paper for a month if they had named anyone other than Kevin Spiegel, the current head of Memphis' Methodist University Hospital.

"Who?" asked Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga. "Who's that? I don't know him.''

Gardenhire and other locally elected Nashville legislators have asked, suggested and now told the board to stop its CEO search until they can restructure the Erlanger board.

Gardenhire says Nashville legislators don't care who the new CEO is (case in point: his Spiegel comment) as long as the board becomes depoliticized and can function properly.

Gone would be the old way (power given to mayors and judges) of naming trustees: now, the board becomes self-perpetuating, voting on new members on its own after legislators name the first seven members.

There is no guarantee, according to Nashville's vision, that one of the voting members has to be a physician.

"Take the Electric Power Board. Five people are on [the board],'' Gardenhire said. "I'd be willing to bet you not a single solitary one of them knows how to generate electricity except by flipping a switch. Does that mean they are not competent? No. They are good, solid business people. They understand governance and the proper role of a board.

"It's the same thing with Erlanger hospital. You start appointing one doctor and you want two.''

But wouldn't you want doctors and physicians to have a clear and present voice in the running of the hospital? Nothing is worse than a board that is removed and ignorant of day-to-day realities, snowed over as to what an institution really needs.

It's like saying a lawyer can't be a judge, no teacher a principal.

"Erlanger hospital is the single biggest asset that Hamilton County has,'' Gardenhire said.

After all, it takes only one lost job (and lost health insurance) or one really sick child or one traumatic accident for the importance of Erlanger to become painfully obvious to each of us.

But don't wait until then to start paying attention.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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