Public meets in Fletcher Allen ‘town meeting’

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(Host) Several hundred people jammed a Burlington church last night to call for major changes at Vermont’s largest hospital. Many of those who spoke said the trustees of Fletcher Allen Health Care need to be more open and more accountable to the public.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The meeting was organized by Congressman Bernie Sanders. He says bluntly that the unfolding scandal at Fletcher Allen is the most significant financial fraud the state’s ever seen.

The hospital leadership misled regulators about the true cost of a $326 million development project. A $55 million parking garage was kept off the books, apparently to avoid state review.

Hospital CEO William Boettcher quit this fall, and he took with him a $750,000 retirement package. Other top executives also stepped down. But Sanders says the problem goes much deeper than Boettcher’s leadership. He notes that Fletcher Allen gets 35% of its funding from the taxpayers. The public, he says, needs to have more control on the board of trustees:

(Sanders) “The bottom line here, in my view, is that in the midst of all of this, Fletcher Allen cannot remain an island unto itself, making major health care decisions behind closed doors and self-selecting a board of trustees which to a very significant degree is not accountable to the people of this state.” (Audience applauds.)

(Dillon) Trustees hired retired airline executive Ed Colodny to serve as interim president. Colodny told the crowd that the new development project includes a birthing center, new emergency department and other services. He says all are needed to improve patient care:

(Colodny) “And we must keep this facility strong. We cannot afford not to have the best care that we can afford to have in this state. And I can tell you on behalf of myself and the management team that is at the hospital, we will do our best to fulfill that obligation in the months ahead.”

(Dillon) Trustees meet later this week and may pick up to six new board members to replace some who are leaving. The board traditionally has included top business leaders, including several whose companies have done business with the hospital.

Trustees have pledged to bring in some fresh faces. One person who spoke out Tuesday night volunteered for the job. He’s Bob Shea, a carpenter from Fairfax. Shea says he may not travel in the same social circles as the board, but he says he’s well qualified to help run Fletcher Allen:

(Shea) “But I believe I have the critical thought, the intelligence to be a trustee of Fletcher Allen, because I’m a consumer.” (Shea is interrupted by audience applause.) “Tonight Mr. Colodny, it’s my pleasure to be in your company and also I’d like you to pass the word on to your brethren on the board. I’d like to join them. Please pass the word on that I’ll see them Thursday at one o’clock.” (More applause.)

(Dillon) Many Fletcher Allen nurses also turned out for the town meeting. The nurses are trying to negotiate a union contract with the hospital, and some of the workers said staff shortages have hurt patient care.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon, in Burlington.

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