In this Aug. 21, 2019, file photo, a car drives along the entrance road to Calais Regional Hospital. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Eighty-four percent of the unionized employees at Calais Regional Hospital have publicly signed a petition of no confidence in their chief executive officer and have asked the board of directors to immediately fire him for what they described as his shaky financial management of the hospital, placing unreasonable burdens on staff and eliminating services vital to the community.

Though CEO Rod Boula has previously threatened to terminate employees for speaking out publicly, “we believe that not speaking out at this time could have even worse consequences for this hospital and our community,” 37 hospital employees, out of the approximately 44 who belong to the Maine State Nurses Association, wrote to the board on Thursday morning.

The registered nurses, medical laboratory scientists, laboratory technologists and radiology technologists in the union, which is in the middle of a contract dispute with the hospital administration, said they have no confidence in Boula’s ability to run the facility for nine listed reasons. The first is that the hospital’s bankruptcy case has gone on for more than a year. The facility entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2019 after struggling to pay back millions in debts and having to cut some programs, including its obstetrics department and outpatient cancer care.

In addition to there being “no plan that we know of to exit from the bankruptcy,” union staff wrote in their letter, it has been months since the hospital administration has updated employees on the financial health of the hospital.

In a press release and a public letter, which also went to hospital trustees and the Calais City Council, the union argued that several experienced workers have left the hospital as employee morale hits “an all-time low” and management struggles to find replacements. They expressed concerns about worker and patient safety, saying certain employees are working back-to-back shifts.

“We have concluded that one person is responsible for these problems in our hospital, our workplace and in our community,” they wrote. “As the CEO, Rod Boula is the one who has ultimately made the decisions that have put us in this current situation, despite him blaming many other people and circumstances for his own failure at his job.”

The board of directors is unlikely to fire Boula. “As far as we are concerned, CEO Rod Boula is doing what he was hired to do,” said chairperson Ron McAlpine and vice chairperson Everett Libby, in a statement. “If it hadn’t been for his efforts there would have been a very good chance that the hospital would have had to close its doors two years ago.”

DeeDee Travis, a spokesperson for the hospital, said the hospital is working on many of the issues the union members said need to be addressed.

“Sadly, in many instances the union does not share our vision or agree with our solution,” Travis said in a statement. However, the administration “will continue to speak up for our patients and work for the best interests of our staff as a WHOLE. We will not be deterred by attempts of media and public mudslinging being used as a consequence of not agreeing whole heartedly to the union position or demands.”

She said the hospital has to deal with the realities it is facing and is “taking action to improve performance now and over the long term by balancing access, improving quality and reducing cost.”

Union staff asserted that the hospital has not spent its money wisely, particularly during two-year-long union contract negotiations. The hospital has incurred more than $8,000 per bargaining session in attorney fees, totalling more than $75,000 so far, according to the union. The union said it offered to extend its past contract and ask for no new benefits, which would have allowed the hospital to save money on the bargaining process, but the administration sought to cut their benefits.

The union authorized a strike in 2019, but the hospital declared bankruptcy soon after, and workers decided to hold off on striking.

“We decided we needed to pull together and try to save our hospital,” said Anne Sluzenski, a nurse in the surgery department who has worked at the hospital for 18 years.

Boula, who came to Calais Regional Hospital in 2016, “says he can turn the hospital around. He hasn’t done it. He’s making financial decisions that we don’t think are wise. And we’re trying to fix it,” Sluzenski said. “We think a next step is to change management.”

Travis, the hospital spokesperson, said the administration has attempted “good faith negotiations” with the union, “offering numerous dates to meet with union members with lackluster response.”

In their letter, the union members complained that hospital management has threatened to double, and in some cases, triple employees’ health care deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses, which would cause the net pay of many to decrease. The hospital is sometimes not paying its employees’ health insurance bills in a timely manner, they said.

The nurses association is the only union at the 25-bed critical access hospital, which had 211 full-time employees before a planned reduction in force in April. The hospital has not confirmed how many workers it laid off.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services appointed an ombudsman to oversee patient care at the hospital earlier this year, but a judge recently ruled that the watchdog was no longer necessary given improvements that had been made in the engagement of staff, the scheduling of services and the operation of its emergency room by a Tennessee-based company.

Now, the request for new leadership comes as cases of COVID-19 have been rising in Washington County and as Calais Regional Hospital’s “swab-and-send” testing site has been ramping up in recent weeks. The spread of the virus prompted Calais City Hall to close for three days and Calais Elementary School to switch to fully remote instruction until Nov. 9.

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.