The rift between Aspen Valley Hospital’s two general surgeons over the past eight years spilled over into a town hall-style meeting at the facility’s board room on Monday.
More than 100 patients, hospital employees and other community members listened — more than 20 of them asked questions or provided comments — in the matter of Dr. John Schultz versus Dr. Bill Rodman. For nearly 20 years, Rodman has had a contract that makes him the “exclusive provider” of general surgical services for the hospital.
Earlier this year, he decided to fire Schultz, whom he hired in 2004, following many years in which the two men worked together but simply could not get along. The hospital even hired a mediator who worked to reconcile their differences throughout 2011, to no avail.
The firing, which Schultz alleges was unfair, was upheld during an executive session of hospital board members on April 9. Schultz has said he did not learn about his termination until then-CEO Dave Ressler informed him on April 17. Just weeks earlier, Schultz said, he had been discussing the prospect of becoming a direct hospital employee with administrators, who were considering doing away with the “exclusive provider” agreement.
Ressler, who now works as an executive for a 600-bed hospital in Tucson, Ariz., made a special appearance at Monday’s meeting. Only two of the hospital’s four board members attended, meaning there was no official quorum for what was supposed to be an official monthly board meeting.
“This hospital takes great pride in providing a very high-quality level of care,” Ressler said. “In order to accomplish that, and patient safety, you have to have a team environment. That team environment is something this board and this executive team … has worked very hard to engender.”
Ressler addressed perceptions and allegations that employees of the hospital have been afraid to speak up about personnel disputes and other matters. He cited anonymous surveys conducted every two years that show a “very favorable” trend of employee satisfaction. When Schultz went public with his firing in a May 23 Aspen Times story, he spoke of how cronyism was adversely affecting hospital operations and board decisions.
Ressler said patient care outweighs all other concerns.
“This is a community hospital,” he said. “It exists for one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to take care of the community. If we don’t get this right, we don’t get the rest of it right.”
Ressler added that he found it “extremely disappointing” that the issues between Rodman and Schultz had led to such public contention.
“This is just my editorial,” he said, pointing out that he was no longer an Aspen Valley Hospital employee. “We are as disappointed as every one of you. We did not want to find ourselves here.
“There wasn’t any kind of conspiracy or purpose to try to find ourselves in a place where our surgeons weren’t able to work together. Quite to the contrary; I personally have been involved with both surgeons for years, trying to bring them together.”
Throughout the nearly two-hour meeting, avid supporters of either Schultz or Rodman took turns making comments or applauding statements. Others questioned the hospital’s “exclusive provider” agreement with Rodman, which Schultz has described as antiquated in the face of modern health care trends and given the hospital’s recent growth.
Stan Bialek said Schultz’s firing was unfair to Schultz and the community.
“It is wrong for one doctor to have the exclusive right to break a contract and abruptly eliminate another,” Bialek said. “What’s worse is that hospital board members, who are supposed to represent the community, give one doctor the right to terminate the other. This should not be a good old boys club.”
He questioned Rodman’s decision to replace Schultz, at least in the short term, with “traveling locums” — doctors who fill in when other physicians are absent or the hospital has staffing issues.
“For you to terminate Dr. Schultz’s right to practice at this hospital is shameful and of no service to this community,” Bialek said.
He drew moans from the crowd when he claimed that Rodman misdiagnosed his hernia.
“The only reason I wanted to say that was because Dr. Schultz did not bad-mouth Dr. Rodman,” Bialek said. “He handled the matter professionally, sensed my urgency and immediately took care of it.”
Retired Dr. Barry Mink, a hospital board member, immediately chimed in, saying the meeting was not being held to determine who might be a better surgeon.
“That’s not appropriate for this discussion,” Mink said. “Please understand that these two surgeons entered into a contract. It’s not about how they are handling patient care as far as the board is concerned.”
The contract between Rodman and Schultz, he added, contained a provision that Schultz would relinquish his hospital privileges if Rodman was dissatisfied.
“That’s between these two men,” Mink said.
Board approval of the termination was required, he added, but the only way board members could disagree was in the event of “some major patient-care issue.”
Shirley Tipton spoke of the need for a choice of surgeons at the hospital and asked whether the hospital, as a public, taxpayer-supported facility, puts the “exclusive provider” contract out for competitive bid.
Lynne Levinson characterized the split between Rodman and Schultz as “a divorce,” noting that usually in such cases, the children suffer the most.
“We need both of these men in our community,” she said.
Michael Levine said the hospital’s “exclusive provider” contracts should be made public and pointed out the recent case in which the town of Basalt was successfully sued by The Aspen Times for not making its business in the matter of the firing of former Police Chief Roderick O’Connor transparent.
Mark Rothman, however, noted his vast experience on the boards of health care facilities and said such contracts are not unusual at small hospitals. He said it usually occurs when a hospital has difficulty in attracting someone of a particular specialty.
Longtime hospital volunteer Donna Rowland said she knows both surgeons and that both are good men, and she added that she was “devastated that this has happened at my warm, fuzzy hospital.”
Marcia Goshorn said the “exclusive provider” agreement no longer makes sense.
“It may have been valid at the time (20 years ago), but times have changed, and this hospital has definitely changed,” she said, adding that Aspen needs two general surgeons, especially with the hospital providing more outpatient surgical services.
She lamented that Schultz basically was being forced out of the community.
“I understand if Dr. Rodman doesn’t want (Schultz) in his own private office. That’s fine. But to say, ‘You’re not welcome in this community because you no longer have hospital privileges,’ … that’s the part that hit home for me,” Goshorn said.
Both surgeons gave general statements to the crowd and the two board members who attended, along with interim CEO John Sarpa, former president of the board. Sarpa, a developer, took the helm of the hospital following Ressler’s recent resignation to work in Arizona.
Rodman called the termination “a private matter” and said he would no longer discuss it in a public setting.
Schultz disputed Rodman’s account of Schultz’s offer to resign last year.
“I did offer my resignation in 2012,” Schultz said. “I approached Bill and the administration and said, ‘I am dissatisfied with the structure I’ve been working under for the last eight years. I would love to stay here and work here full time if we can reach another arrangement.’ It wasn’t that I just resigned.”
Soon after, Schultz said, he signed an employment extension with Rodman and the hospital with the promise of a different type of contract.
Immediately after the meeting ended, Rodman walked over to where Schultz was standing and extended his hand for a shake. Schultz politely refused it.