WASILLA — An executive shake-up at a longtime community health provider in Mat-Su came just months after it expanded to include a busy clinic in Wasilla.
The Sunshine Community Health Center Inc. board last week terminated CEO Melody West following employee concerns voiced at an April meeting about the way she handled her job, including complaints about the medical director and potential patient safety issues.
The board in late May placed medical director Dr. George Hightower on leave. He remains on leave as the board looks into employee issues raised in a confidential report submitted to the board last month, said Randall Kowalke, a former board member appointed to serve as interim CEO.
Alaska workplace coach Lynne Curry was contracted by the board in late April and interviewed scores of Sunshine employees for the report.
“During the proceeding couple of years, despite the efforts of many on the staff, we kind of drifted,” Kowalke said. “We lost the support of a lot of employees and we lost the support of the community.”
The board has already begun the search process using a redesigned job description, according to board president Kathy Watkins.
West declined to comment when contacted by Anchorage Daily News last month, before her termination: “Thank you for reaching out but at this time the board of directors is working on the current situation, and I don’t feel it would be respectful to the board nor appropriate for me to comment,” she wrote in an email.
Hightower could not be reached for comment for this story.
Sunshine is one of many community health centers across the state. It offers medical, dental and behavioral health services on a sliding scale to uninsured or minimally insured patients who might otherwise be forced to seek care in a hospital emergency room.
The center started in Talkeetna in the 1980s through a grassroots effort to establish affordable health care for the remote communities of the upper Susitna Valley, far from the borough’s only hospital near Wasilla.
Now Sunshine operates clinics in Talkeetna, Willow and, most recently, Wasilla, where the private nonprofit corporation began serving patients in January.
The center employs about 100 people, among them nine medical providers including three doctors, four dentists and eight behavioral health specialists.
Over the past year, a time that brought fewer patients due to coronavirus restrictions, the clinics saw almost 4,000 people, nearly 1,200 of them at Wasilla even though that facility has only been open five months.
The move gives patients access to more providers not only at Wasilla but throughout the system, Sunshine officials say.
But the center’s recent expansion into Wasilla also magnified existing workplace conflicts, former employees said. Some Wasilla employees said they didn’t even have phones in their offices until late April.
Hightower told KTNA radio in an interview that the challenge of opening a new clinic was offset to some extent by Sunshine’s staff growth.
“To say that we’re going through growing pains is an understatement, but it’s a task that we’re up to, and we will provide the services the community needs, regardless of what’s being said to the contrary,” he told reporter Phillip Manning.
Kowalke this week said adding more patients in Wasilla actually allowed Sunshine to add providers in other clinics — “my grandchildren got to see a pediatrician in Talkeetna because of this” — but acknowledged that the launch of the new operation was poorly handled.
“With the problems we were having at the clinic, it exacerbated an already fragile condition,” he said.
Morale issues surfaced publicly for the first time during a meeting of the center’s 11-member board of directors in late April.
By then, more than 300 people in the communities the clinics serve had signed petitions asking the board to “hold a vote of no confidence” in West, accused in one petition of being “unwilling or unable to provide effective, compassionate and trustworthy leadership.”
The investment in Wasilla diverted Sunshine “from its own vision and original purpose of focusing resources on the rural aspect of our community,” the petition read. “Our community is small and quite often the needs of small communities are the last to be met when compared to areas with a larger population base.”
Several employees had resigned or been forced out in recent months, officials and former employees say.
A number of people testified at the April meeting about concerns regarding Sunshine’s operations and Hightower’s behavior, as well as the lack of response to reports regarding potential safety issues.
One former employee told the board her clinic lacked EpiPens, used for allergic reactions. She also said she was told to transfer liquid nitrogen from storage containers using a paper cup and bare hands.
Nurse Duronda Twigg left her position as Sunshine’s clinical director in Talkeetna in August 2019 over concerns about what she described as Hightower’s heavy-handed management style and complaints from staffers she supervised of problems with his medical charting and other patient care practices.
Twigg, who grew up in Talkeetna, spent a decade at the clinic on and off. When Hightower started work there, “all of us were very encouraged,” she said in an interview last month. “He seemed very charismatic. He seemed like a team player. He was jovial. He talked about prevention and getting out into the communities ... speaking our language.”
But about a month in, Twigg said, she started seeing what she described as “signs of bullying” in Hightower. She said the medical director would reprimand her to “stay in my lane” and spend hours scolding her. By July, staffers were coming to her with concerns about working with Hightower but also what she described as “neglectful charting practices” where he would sometimes fail to follow up with patients or other providers.
Twigg said she filed two reports with human resources but got no response. During a long-awaited meeting with West, she was told to continue working with Hightower, ignoring a proposal she backed to move the medical director into a position where he could see patients but not oversee the clinics.
Twigg said she gave two weeks notice after that conversation.
Now she is considering returning to work.
This week, Twigg said she felt validated and relieved to hear about the board’s decisions to terminate West last Tuesday.
“I suddenly felt safe,” she wrote in a message. “Safe to return to Sunshine Clinic so near and dear to my heart. This doesn’t mean that (West) is a bad person and I certainly do not want to vilify anyone in this story.”
Twigg said the situation “speaks to the challenges many of us face in our work places that are not recognized as psychologically harmful, such as bullying and misuse of power,” but also criticized the board for not taking action sooner.
“It shouldn’t take so much damage and the culmination of so many voices via an outside investigation to listen and act,” she said.