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Hospice responds to DOJ, looks at ways to address concerns

By SUE RYAN

News staff writer

October 28, 2006

The Hospice of the Gorge board of directors has responded to a request for information from the state Department of Justice regarding service delivery in their coverage area.

Hospice covers seven counties on both sides of the Columbia River, including Klickitat and Skamania counties in Washington and Hood River, Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam, and Morrow counties in Oregon.

The civil enforcement division had sent a request for information as to how services were being delivered to the region following the resignation of five nurses. Hospice Board President Charles W. Bugge wrote the reply.

“All were less than full-time nurses and some worked as few as eight hours a week. The administration has addressed the resignations by promoting other part-time employees to full-time status. Currently we are in the process of adding an additional part-time registered nurse. To my knowledge, no requested services have been denied to any patient in our seven-county area,” Bugge wrote.

The DOJ limited its inquiry to its role of “holding oversight jurisdiction for all charitable nonprofit corporations operating, soliciting donations or holding assets in Oregon.” The DOJ generally does not review employment issues or quality of care issues, as those typically fall under the Bureau of Labor and Industries and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Board of Nursing, and certification entities such as the Oregon Hospice Association. While not required by DOJ, Bugge addressed the situation that led to the nurses’ resignations.

“In May of 2006, Hospice of the Gorge Board of Directors received a letter of complaint from 13 staff, alleging an abusive and hostile work environment. Because some of the accusations, if accurate, could be violations of employment law or Oregon Hospice guidelines, the Board requested independent investigations from the Oregon Hospice Association and a labor attorney from the area (Portland).

“Over the next two months, the two independent reviews were completed and reports submitted to the board. As part of the reviews, current staff was interviewed and internal policies and guidelines were critiqued. The complainants were all given personal interviews with the independent labor attorney.

“In late June, the executive director of the Oregon Hospice association, Ms. Ann Jackson, issued her report, stating that the Hospice of the Gorge policies, procedures, and practices were in compliance with state and federal laws regulating employment, civil rights, and eligibility to seek reimbursement for services. Also in June, Ms. Lynda Hartzell, labor attorney representing the firm of Tonkon Torp LLP, interviewed selected staff and issued a report stating she found no evidence of a hostile, abusive, or demeaning work environment.

“At the request of the Board, Ms. Hartzell reviewed seven issues raised in the letter of complaint that may have some legal implications from under federal and state employment laws. Following personal interviews with all the complainants, a second report was issued in August, addressing each of the issues in the letter of complaint and confirming no wrong actions on the part of the board of directors or Hospice administration.”

The seven issues Hartzell reviewed for the board between June and August were: claims of a hostile work environment created by the executive director, retaliation for whistle blowing, general violations of laws, rules or regulations by the executive director, wage and hour violations, requests by the executive director to ask or require interviewees to violate laws or medical ethics, unfair hiring and promotion practices/work assignments and involuntary demotions.

Part of the DOJ’s concern was the possibility of additional resignations from Hospice in coming weeks. Bugge replied that Hospice was working on building a solid team out of the remainder of the disgruntled employees.

Bugge said during a follow-up interview that the board has made a number of recommendations to administration and staff to actively address the situation. Those include individual and group staff development, realignment of duties, work stations and work hours and additional steps in the personnel area.

“The Board also formed subcommittees in the area of communication and personnel to work with staff, provide advice and better educate board members on the changes within the organization,” he said.

Nurse Leslie Moon, who said she was the first one to resign from Hospice in August, said she has chosen to move on.

“I support everything about the mission of Hospice and I care deeply about the families,” she said. “I left because the situation became too stressful.”

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