Split Governing Board over Termination of Health Director
By Joe Morey
The four newly-elected LCO Tribal Governing Board members moved to terminate the employment contract of Sarah Cormell, LCO Health Center Director since Feb. 19, 2019, at the LCO Tribal Governing Board (TGB) meeting on Sep. 9.
LCO Secretary-Treasurer Michelle Beaudin made the motion to terminate Cormell and it was seconded by Glenda Barber. LCO Vice Chairwoman Lorraine Gouge was chairing the meeting as Chairman Louis Taylor was absent.
In discussion, TGB member Tweed Shuman asked Jason “Kekek” Stark, the tribe’s attorney, if terminating her contract would hold up if she appealed. Kekek advised the TGB members they would lose in an appeal.
Despite Kekek’s legal opinion, a vote was taken with Beaudin, Barber and Gary “Little Guy” Clause voting to terminate. Shuman and Don Carley voted against.
The matter was revisited at the following weekly meeting on Sep. 16 with Shuman asking for a reconsideration of the previous action. Shuman stated LCO Legal advised against the termination. He said Legal advised their reason for termination was weak. Shuman added the tribe stands to lose millions in Joint Venture Funding if our application isn’t submitted by October 11, which Cormell has been spearheading.
Shuman also stated the Cormell is attempting to recover $800,000 to $1 million in 3rd party billing revenue and if she is terminated the tribe may lose those funds.
“This is a very time sensitive issue to recover our 2014 FQHC dollars. We have been granted a 3-month extension to try to get this reporting in so that we recover the $800,000 to $1m 3rd party billing revenue to the tribe. They cut it off after 5 years. Cormell has been working on recovering these funds,” Shuman explained.
Beaudin stated a couple of reasons for the termination, which included, “She defied our order to get rid of Diane Peterson. She was told not to hire Peterson and she did anyway.”
Chairman Taylor asked Beaudin who ordered Cormell not to hire Peterson, the former Chief Financial Officer of the tribe, because it wasn’t an official action of the governing board.
Beaudin added they have been receiving a lot of patient complaints regarding Cormell.
Vice Chair Gouge stated Cormell hired the Medical Director, Dr. Rey Palop, and that he can’t see patients who are billed through Medicaid over a case from 2006. Gouge said they were told Palop was able to take care of it so that he could bill Medicaid, but she asked why he didn’t have it in place by now.
“This wasn’t a decision that came lightly,” Gouge said. “It is urgent because of the new clinic.”
Four members of the Health Advisory Board showed up to the meeting in support of Cormell. Board Member Mona Ingerson said there is a double standard because a doctor who was removed they want to bring back can’t do Medicaid billing either. Ingerson said Dr. Palop can see patients with private insurance and Medicaid patients can still be seen by other staff.
“I think you’re moving in the wrong direction,” Ingerson said. “Our health center is working and it’s working better.”
Faith Smith, also of the health board, said there has been an increase in tribal membership use of the clinic since Cormell was hired.
“We’ve seen the release of a doctor who wasn’t referring people out and they would get worse. Diabetic patients who would be in jeopardy of losing a limb,” Smith stated. “We’ve seen great improvements in our clinic.”
Smith explained that in a letter it was stated that the board was consulted regarding personnel issues as one of the reasons for Cormell’s dismissal, but she stated, “Not any of us were consulted. We don’t know what that’s about.”
Smith added, “This is the first time we’ve been able to view positive change where we can now start looking at other things such as an assisted living facility. People were stopping use of our clinic and now there is a rebuilding of confidence in our clinic and people are coming back.”
Beaudin also stated the people getting hired at the clinic aren’t from LCO, but Ingerson and Smith disputed the claim and said there are more LCO people at the clinic now than there ever was.
Attorney Kekek was brought into the meeting and asked whether there were grounds for termination. He stated that they may need to be in executive session. Chairman Taylor said too many things are in executive session.
“The people should have a say in their reservation,” Taylor said.
Speaking on behalf of the LCO Legal Department, Kekek said, “Our analysis, you’re going to lose if this goes to court.”
Shuman then made a motion to reconsider the action to terminate Cormell at the last meeting. It was seconded by Don Carley.
In discussion, Shuman said we need to keep our stability and keep our clinic on track.
Shuman and Carley voted in favor of reconsideration while Gouge, Beaudin and Clause voted to proceed with the termination of the health director. Glenda Barber was absent. The Chairman can only vote in case of a tie. Motion was denied 3-2.
The previous TGB hired Sarah Cormell who began her employment as clinic director on Feb. 19, 2019.
“Sarah brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in administration and Indian Health Service,” said Rose Gokee, former LCO TGB member. “We felt that based on her education and her prior experience, she will only help to improve health care in our community.”
Cormell previously worked as director for the St. Croix Tribe’s clinic for nine years. She is a Hayward High School graduate and went on to achieve her Master’s Degree focused in social work from the UW-Madison. Sarah has been a lifelong resident of Lac Courte Oreilles.
Tweed Shuman said he was very impressed with Cormell. “We hired Sarah a year ago to do our clinic assessment and at that time I had concerns with falling patient numbers and patient care, and unpaid medical bills,” Shuman said. “Over the last year that I worked at the clinic I felt we were moving away from patient care and chasing the almighty dollar. It was my goal to be liaison when I got elected so that I could address these issues. Sarah’s assessment reflected what I had thought, or my concerns. I am very happy we hired her.”
Shuman was a nurse at the clinic for over two decades prior to being elected to the tribal governing board in 2017.