By any measure, Tulare Local Healthcare District (TLHCD) officials were blindsided at September’s regularly scheduled board meeting.
While the meeting’s agenda was routine, and the District received an award for its participation in and promotion of organ donation, the public comment section of the meeting had large surprises in store for the board.
Opponents of the district’s practices and partnership with Healthcare Conglomerate Associates (HCCA) came out in force: officials with HCCA and the District were served with a lawsuit, and TLHCD Board Vice-Chairman Dr. Parmod Kumar was served with the initiation of a recall process.
Another Lawsuit Filed
The lawsuit names all of the members of the Tulare Local Healthcare District Board of Directors: Sherrie Bell, Kumar, Linda Wilbourn, Laura Gadke, and Richard Torrez as defendants. It also names the District, HCCA, and Dr. Benny Benzeevi, the CEO of HCCA, and Dr. Rebecca Zulim as defendants.
Though Benzeevi was named in the suit, he was not served with papers at the meeting, as he was not in attendance.
The suit was filed by Thomas Drilling, Bill Postlewaite, John E. Beck, Ned Kehrli, Ed Henry, Xavier Avila, Douglas Jacobs, J.D. McNearney, Jennifer Burcham, David Phelps, and Patricia Drilling Phelps.
Their lawyer, Michael Lampe, served the board members and Bruce Greene, the lawyer for both HCCA and the District, with a copy of the suit.
“I want to put this in the context of the layoffs — 29 people recently got laid off. People who have worked for this district in some cases most or all of their adult lives — decades of service, laid off. Mr. Germany was paid $39,000 a month to be the Chief Financial Officer for this district, under the contract that you approved, out of his home from Tuscon, Arizona. And then we paid more than $39,000 a month. Did any of you look at the expense account reports we found? Did any of you? Probably everyone in this room will take that as a no. Let me tell you some of the things that were in there — it’s really amazing,” Lampe said.
“Here’s bills from Chipotle Grill, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Carl’s Jr, Jamba Juice, Fruitland Fresh, Starbucks, Long John Silver’s, FarmerBoys, Subway, El Pollo Loco, Black Bear Diner, Sonic, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Togo’s, Burger King, Del Taco, Chilli’s, Popeyes, A&W Root Beer, Panda Express, McDonald’s, there’s charges that he incurred that you paid for with taxpayer funds at Los Angeles International Airport, Fresno Air Terminal…my question to you, is that the moral compass of this board? You take your employees and you move them over to HCCA so that they can fire them, but the guy you’re paying $39,000 a month to to work out of his home in Tuscon, Arizona, you’re buying his hamburgers and his coffee? You think that’s a wise expenditure of public funds?”
After his initial statement, Lampe was reminded by the board that he only had one minute left. He retorted by stating he’d need even less to give his final words to the board.
“The waste of public funds that I just outlined pales in comparison to the lawsuit you were just served. Your lawyer collected all of those lawsuits. There are four of you who desperately need to grab a copy of that lawsuit and go seek independent counsel. If you don’t do that, it will be the most foolish move of your adult life,” Lampe said.
“You are in the middle of a volcano and you don’t even know it – the allegations of that complaint are horrid. By the way, that complaint has been uploaded by the Valley Voice, and I believe it’s already online. I encourage every voter in this district, every resident of this district, every taxpayer of this district, to read that complaint. Thank you very much.”
Greene declined to comment for this article.
The first allegation of the suit claims that the district spent $98,213.84 to support a civil lawsuit filed by Benzeevi, Kumar and Zulim against Dr. Abraham Betre, the Chief of Staff for the former Tulare Regional Medical Center Staff.
That lawsuit, which Benzeevi, Kumar, and Zulim lost, asserted that Betre had violated confidentiality bylaws in allegedly speaking to the Voice.
The plaintiffs state that since the district was not named in Benzeevi/Kumar/Zulim suit, there was no reason for funds to be used toward it, but they claim that a board closed session reportable item authorized the use of those funds while obscuring their true purpose.
The $98,213 figure comes from documents that the plaintiffs requested from the district through a California Public Records Act request.
The second part of the new suit centers around the same issue, and seeks a judgement that would determine how those funds could be recovered from the district.
The third allegation in the suit centers around allegations that the district has not cooperated with a California Public Records Act request by extending the time of a request from the maximum required 24 days to an estimated 90-120 days.
A copy of the suit is available below.
This lawsuit is distinct from a prior suit previously filed by Emily Yenigues and Deanne Martin-Soares alleging that the district had knowingly violated the California Public Records Act.
During the meeting’s public comment section, Alberto Aguilar served Kumar, the representative for TLHCD Zone 3, with a notice of intent to circulate a recall petition. The proponents of Kumar’s recall were legally required to serve such a notice to him, either by providing it to him in person or by certified mail.
Aguilar, a former member of the district’s Bond Oversight Committee, has been an outspoken critic of the board and the board’s management arrangement with HCCA.
The recall notice, which Aguilar read aloud before serving Kumar, stated that the recall was being sought due to the floundering tower expansion project and the district’s agreement with HCCA. A copy of the notice is available below.
“Since November 2008 you have continually failed the public trust. The citizens of the District entrusted you with $85 million in bond funds to build an addition. The addition was never completed and the shameful use of public funds prompted the Tulare County Grand Jury to issue the “Tower of Shame” report and demand the Board provide a full accounting of the project. However, instead of abiding by the Grand Jury request, you continue to thumb your nose to your fiduciary duty as a Board member,” Aguilar said, and the notice read.
“You voted to completely divest the powers of the Board to company (HCCA), with no experience in operating a hospital or manage the delivery of quality healthcare. You gave HCCA unfettered access to District assets, including an option to purchase. You approved a contract which keeps the Board from entering the hospital or voice any type of criticism against HCCA. This has resulted in a significant deterioration of the District’s healthcare delivery, which now has a one star rating, a falling census and recent long-term employee lay-offs. Yet, you continue to financially benefit from its limited operations. Your failure has put the future of a publicly owned hospital in jeopardy.”
Proponents of the recall provided a statement to the Voice.
“We find this recall to be a necessary step in the process of eliminating corruption and mismanagement from our District Board. Dr. Kumar’s 20 years of service have been marred by continuous questions of honesty and public stewardship,” the proponents said. “On multiple occasions, Dr. Kumar has intentionally taken steps to cloud the answers to these questions, particularly through the suspension of the 2012 forensic audit and the controversial hiring of Healthcare Conglomerate Associates.”
“At best, Dr. Kumar’s actions display a gross disregard for public funds and for the citizens who provide those funds—not to mention the votes that elected him. For these reasons primarily, we see the removal of Dr. Kumar from this board as integral to the preservation of our public hospital.”
A Patient’s Death
Deanne Martin-Soares, a former TLHCD Board Member and a member of Citizens for Hospital Accountability, spoke before Alberto Aguilar about a letter describing a now-deceased patient’s time at Tulare Regional Medical Center earlier this month.
Martin-Soares spoke about the letter and how it has allegedly spread around the community.
“If you four other board members do not know what I’m talking about, you need to ask Dr. Kumar or Dr. Benzeevi to explain this to you today. All I’m going to say about this letter is that when somebody has a strangulated bowel, a strangulated hernia, and they reside in our emergency room for 10 hours, and then two more hours before they make it to surgery, that person’s likelihood of survival is very slim,” Martin-Soares said. “Those kind of things are what continue to happen in this community, and for those of you that are nurses and healthcare staff, this is not about all of you — this is about reducing things and job sharing — you can’t put a medical floor nurse in ICU, it takes a certain kind of skill.”
The letter, which has been provided to the Voice and redacted to protect the information of the deceased and her family, claims that the patient came into the hospital on September 16 and died the following day.
“From 10am until 8:30pm she sat in a bed in the ER waiting to be taken up stairs to be taken to surgery. For 10 hours my Mother in Law who was diagnosed with a strangulated hernia waited 10 hours to be given a room and to be taken to surgery,” the letter reads. “At one point my Father in Law got so exasperated and asked if she could be transferred to Kaweah Delta to be seen and the staff had said “no” that they had already called for another patient and that Kaweah was full. After finally getting admitted to the ICU she sat in her bed for another 2 hours waiting for surgery.”
The letter also claims that hospital staff lacked professionalism while demonstrating recklessness.
“My wife arrived at 9:15pm and the events that she witnessed are downright heart breaking and depressing that such unprofessionalism was exhibited at a functioning Hospital. What she saw was her mother in pain who had not received any pain medication for 4 hours because they were prepping her for surgery.”
“I am sickened to my stomach that this kind of reckless care and unprofessionalism is what we the citizens of Tulare are exposed to. If we do not have a functioning Hospital with a capable staff then please do not mislead us!”
The letter is available below, along with audio from the meeting.