‘The clinic is failing to meet the needs of our community’

By Melinda Munson

In an unprecedented move, the Skagway Borough Assembly voted to replace two Dahl Memorial Clinic (DMC) Board of Directors with two of their own members.

Long-time board members Linda Calver and Cory Thole were asked by Mayor Andrew Cremata to step down. They both declined but were removed after a five to one vote on March 17, with Jay Burnham the only assembly member voting against the measure.

Calver and Thole were replaced by Assemblymember Deb Potter and Dustin Stone. Asemblymember Reba Hylton was relieved as assembly liaison with Assemblymember Sam Bass taking her place.

The shakeup comes as the clinic struggles to maintain adequate qualified staff and health consortium SEARHC is in talks with the municipality to possibly takeover clinic land, buildings and services, depending on a yet unscheduled municipal vote.

“…I don’t think anybody would have chosen this as their first go-to way to address the problems at the clinic,” Stone said. “…the clinic is failing to meet the needs of our community. And that failure lies on all of us, everybody sitting up here and everybody on the clinic board. Currently, the amount of turnover at the clinic is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable when patients are turned away because the clinic is short-staffed or does not have the ability to treat as needed. There’s a lot that’s unacceptable going on at the clinic. And this is not new. This is a problem that we’ve been talking about and addressing for longer than I can remember, at this point. So now it’s time to potentially make a potentially unpopular decision. Because it needs to be addressed. This isn’t about protecting people’s feelings.”

Thole, who was clinic board vice-president prior to the vote, suggested increasing the board of directors from nine to 11 or making “every regular clinic board meeting a joint HEW meeting.”

He suggested “…instead of removing senior members of the DMC board that have an intrinsic knowledge of clinic business, structure, operations and policy, and replacing them with assembly members who have limited knowledge of clinic nuances and may already be stretched thin in their responsibilities as an elected official and personal lives/careers, we collaborate and combine resources.”

“The best path forward in rebuilding the clinic and restoring community trust is to work together,” he said. “Under a shared vision. Not to create scenarios that can lead to questions there may be alternative motives for restructuring the makeup of the DMC Board. Especially under the shadow of the SEARHC Letter of Intent the additional stress that has created for staff members and community members alike.”

The assembly’s move was made pursuant to SMC 3.17.025(A), after review by the borough attorney.

Assemblymember Deb Potter emphasized her willingness to collaborate.

“We are in this together,” she said. “It’s a co-applicant agreement. It’s the assembly and the clinic board. …This is a decision that wasn’t taken lightly and it’s absolutely not about any individual. As assembly members we get hit up all the time with complaints about the clinic and it’s really frustrating to only be able to say assembly members have little control over what is going on at the clinic. My hope coming from this is that we together as the assembly in the clinic board can look at things maybe with fresh eyes.”

Assemblymember Sam Bass acknowledged how the vote might appear to the community.

“I do think that this decision … can come across as a bit, as a bit drastic. But I do think it’s reasonable. And I think, again, that the reason it’s reasonable, is that we have to have a functioning clinic. It has to be a highly functioning clinic. We’re a very isolated, small community with a lot of visitors. We have to have a functioning, highly functioning clinic…” 

Katie Auer, an alternate member, was named to a permanent seat. Board Member Lisa Mandeville noted at the meeting that some unexpected board vacancies had very recently arisen. 

The only assembly member to express support for SEARHC taking over the clinic is Hylton. Potter and Stone have remained neutral on the topic. Bass noted he backs the clinic staying in local hands.

“When it comes to the SEARHC question, I probably lean more to not having SEARHC,” Bass said. “And I’ll just publicly say … that I think that the community, I hope the community can maintain their own clinic.”