Geri Forbes

Geri Forbes

Geri Forbes’ four-year tenure marked by change, controversy and construction

Bottom line got healthier than took a turn for the worse

After four years of leading Whidbey Island’s health system through significant changes — and sparking controversy along the way — WhidbeyHealth CEO Geri Forbes announced Friday she is retiring on July 1.

Forbes thanked her WhidbeyHealth co-workers in a press release and praised them for providing “Whidbey Island with the excellent rural health system it is today.”

While Forbes is credited with initially plugging the public health system’s bleeding finances, the last year has been plagued by financial problems and missteps.

In addition, her own salary fueled criticism.

Forbes oversaw the construction of a new 39-bed hospital wing and renovation of a surgical patient area built after voters approved a $50 million bond in 2013.

Construction costs ran about $3 million over budget.

Last year, WhidbeyHealth administrators and board members conceded that they failed to plan for possible construction budget overruns. The board is now seeking a $20 million USDA loan to help pay off construction overruns and to afford long-deferred hospital maintenance needs, such as new ventilation and heating systems and electrical upgrades.

Because of a code violation within the ventilation system of the hospital’s in-house pharmacy, WhidbeyHealth was prevented from making chemotherapy drugs for much of last year.

Outsourcing the drugs cost about $300,000 a month; a new pharmacy with state-of-the-art ventilation and safety systems was added within the new wing, costing about $3.8 million.

Critics say the pharmacy problem had been known for years but had been ignored until it reached critical condition.

The added pharmacy expense was among several costs cited for plunging the system’s finances down after two years of positive trends.

WhidbeyHealth is also being sued in federal court for alleged age discrimination.

In February 2015, Forbes was hired at the salary of $279,000, replacing CEO Tom Tomasino who resigned after serving more than five years. Her contract included an annual board-approved bonus equal to 25 percent of her salary if she met board objectives.

Commissioners of the Whidbey Island Public Hospital District voted to award Forbes a $70,000 bonus in 2017 and a $60,000 bonus last year.

Her current contract, signed June 1, 2018, stipulates an annual base salary of $390,000 through May 31, 2021.

A severance package shouldn’t be awarded, according to provisions of her contract, because she’s retiring. However, commissioners didn’t release any details about a parting pay out.

Ron Wallin, president of the board that oversees policy and hires the chief operating officer, thanked Forbes for “her dedication and hard work in getting us this far.”

“She is greatly appreciated,” he said in a statement. “We wish her all the best as she takes her own next steps.”

In past years, commissioners repeatedly defended their decision to award Forbes bonuses.

“Geri has been a godsend to this hospital and community,” Wallin said last year. “She’s done so much.”

Less than a year after being hired, Forbes led a renaming and rebranding campaign, changing the name of the longtime Coupeville hospital from Whidbey General Hospital to WhidbeyHealth Medical Center.

Most recently, Forbes generated a chorus of complaints when health insurance options for retirees, known as PEBB, were suddenly dropped by WhidbeyHealth with little notice. The health system did put on a mea culpa presentation to express regret for its mishandling.

There have also been positive outcomes under Forbes’ leadership. Hospital staff have been commended repeatedly by outside agencies for outstanding infection control and high patient satisfaction scores, the fill rate of positions steadily rose to about 97 percent and many vacant physician and surgical specialist positions were filled.

Additionally, costs to patients for physical therapy services and some diagnostic imaging were slashed 28 to 38 percent.

WhidbeyHealth expects about $111.5 million in net revenue this year, about the same as 2018. Net expenses are predicted to be $111.4 million. Of that, about $104 million is patient revenue and nearly $6 million is tax levy revenue.

From the start, Forbes’ salary and her annual bonuses were criticized by some residents who questioned how a public system that had been mired in debt could afford administrative salaries that were seen as extravagant and incongruous to the local economy.

From 2010 to 2014, the health system faced a deficit of operating income over expenses at the end of every year. Beginning in 2016, positive indicators such as clinic and emergency room visits started ticking upward.

At the end of 2016, WhidbeyHealth reported a 1.3 percent operating surplus budget after years of losing money.

By mid-2017, the bottom line looked so good that Chief Financial Officer Ron Telles told the board, “we had a spectacular first quarter.”

It didn’t last long.

Number of surgeries began dwindling, then dropped “catastrophically.” Scheduling of MRI scans and other diagnostic procedures also steadily declined and visits to obstetrics and orthopaedic clinics also dropped.

By the end of 2018, cost overruns attributed to unexpected expenses led to what was termed a “tough year.”

In her retirement announcement, Forbes defended the decision to choose to outsource cancer drugs as opposed to shutting down the chemotherapy ward and making patients travel off island.

“The hospital board and our dedicated professionals recognized how important it is to keep this care close to home,” she said.

Forbes said construction of the new pharmacy took twice as long to complete from initial construction projections, so the expensive cost of outsourcing drugs continued for much longer than anticipated.

Assembling an impressive administrative team, keeping the hospital’s operating budget balanced and overseeing the new wing’s construction were among Forbes’ accomplishments cited by the board early last year.

Commissioners defended her salary, saying that WhidbeyHealth should be compared to larger critical access systems and hospital districts because of the quantity and scope of services offered.

Forbes oversees about 800 employees and all the health care services of WhidbeyHealth, including the medical center, eight clinics and three EMS stations.

“Among the many organizations in which I’ve collaborated, I am the most proud of the contribution to our community I’ve seen provided by this team, who treats you as if you were family and always maintains quality of care as a top priority,” Forbes said.

“WhidbeyHealth is more than a small, local rural hospital,” she added. “We provide top-tier healthcare services within our continuum of hospital and clinic services.”

Wallin said the board will be updating the health system’s strategic plan to develop a Master Facility Plan based upon clinical and demographic data.

“As a system that covers a 55-mile area with 15 outpatient locations, three of which provide Island County Emergency Medical Services, we need a better understanding of the future state of Island County,” he said.

No information was provided about the search for a new CEO.

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