By Todd Cohen
ROCKINGHAM, N.C. — In the wake of some bumpy times, Richmond County Hospice is retooling and moving ahead, its interim chief says.
The Hospice board earlier this year put its executive director on indefinite leave, hired an interim director, fired its executive director and replaced a majority of its 13 members.
“The board was not a full board and it was not functioning effectively,” says Neal Watkins, interim executive director. “The board didn’t respond very quickly at the beginning.”
He referred to a series of local newspaper stories that reported allegations of mismanagement, extravagance and “a failure to offer the same services to indigent patients as paying patients.”
Since taking the job Sept. 2, Watkins says, he has challenged the board “to be highly involved,” introduced regular staff meetings and launched reviews of personnel policies, salary schedules, staffing patterns and job descriptions.
Watkins, a former Hospice board chair who retired in 2000 as the Pinehurst-based manager overseeing five counties for the state division of vocational rehabilitation services, says neither the board nor the lawyer it hired found any mismanagement.
Before he was hired, Watkins says, the board ended a policy that had charged patients at its 6-bed Hospice Haven who were not covered by Medicare or Medicaid, and set up funding to cover those patients.
He also concedes some critics believe Hospice’s administrative building, which opened in August 2001, was “more elaborate than was necessary.”
Hospice, which was formed in 1985 and has an annual budget of $3.9 million, has pared the number of patients it serves to roughly 100 from 150 six months ago.
Hospice had continued to serve some patients after their condition improved, but has eliminated most of them because they no longer were covered by Medicare, which accounts for nearly half the organization’s annual budget.
Hospice, which employs 51 people full-time and six part-time, also has used some of its reserves and endowment this year to repay $2.1 million it owed to Medicare because of the reduction in patients.
Watkins says he has tried to restore morale and involve staff in decisions, and has encouraged them to suggest improvements when they voice concerns.
“The staff felt like they were not sure where they stood with the board or administration,” he says. “Things were not always shared.”
The Hospice board voted in October to have a new executive director and finance officer on the job by the end of March 2004.
Hospice has a $2 million endowment, is in good financial shape and is seeing a pickup in donations after a sharp drop, says Watkins.
“The prognosis is good because of the community, because this community believed in Hospice and still does, and because the care for the patients has never faltered,” says Watkins. “In all this turmoil, the quality of care for the patient has never been an issue.”