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Leader of Embattled Hospital Out

Hoping to end a long feud between doctors and administration, Community Memorial trustees force the chief executive to resign.

October 03, 2003|Daryl Kelley and Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writers

Hoping to end a costly standoff, Community Memorial Hospital trustees quietly moved this week to reach a peace with rebellious physicians by forcing the resignation of the hospital's chief executive, a move intended to stop the flow of disgruntled doctors to other facilities and end a lawsuit.

The trustees voted Tuesday to abandon an 18-month power struggle with about 100 dissident physicians by asking Michael D. Bakst, the hospital's top administrator for nearly 25 years, to leave, trustee Chairman Philip C. Drescher said Thursday.

"The board reluctantly concluded that in this very difficult atmosphere Mike could no longer be effective, and he resigned," Drescher said in an interview after the hospital issued a press release announcing the change.

"We're losing a brilliant executive in the hope that the medical staff will sit down with us and begin a dialogue that will resolve whatever problems there are between us," Drescher said.

Bakst could not be reached for comment, but he said in a statement that he was leaving for the "best interests" of the hospital.

"The separation does not come easily nor does it come without some second thoughts," Bakst said in a joint release with the hospital. "But the overriding principle of my involvement with Community Memorial Hospital has always been that the hospital superceded my own personal needs."

Kenneth R. Strople, chief assistant to Bakst, was appointed interim executive director while the hospital conducts a nationwide search for a successor.

Orthopedic surgeon Dr. John Hill, deposed this year as elected head of the hospital's medical staff, said Thursday that Bakst's resignation was a positive step that could eventually lead to a period of calm at Ventura's 102-year-old community hospital. A Ventura physician, Hill has been performing surgeries at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard.

"I think the board has finally realized that there are so many problems that emanated from Bakst's regime, which was very aggressively repressive and had a component of vindictiveness," Hill said. "It was either his way or the highway."

Hill said physicians now wanted to roll back the clock to the way things were in early 2002 -- before hospital trustees unilaterally began to change physician bylaws, seized $250,000 in medical staff funds and imposed a code of conduct and conflict of interest policy opposed by many doctors.

"This is a very positive first step," Hill said. "But I emphasize the term first step. A lot still has to be done to restore loyalty and trust. And, in reality, there are probably a lot of things that are never going to be the way they once were."

Community Memorial has been embroiled in an internal fight for more than a year, as the 242-bed hospital has tightened controls over its medical staff and physicians have bristled at what they consider an erosion of their rights. After attempts at mediation failed, a group of physicians, led by a majority of the medical staff executive committee, filed suit. The suit is pending in Superior Court.

Doctors specifically allege that administrators tried to rig a staff election, adopted a code of conduct to stifle dissent, implemented a conflict of interest policy to disqualify select physicians from leadership positions and illegally allowed physicians to practice at the hospital without the staff's review.

The hospital maintains that the dispute is mostly financial and is being pressed, in large part, by doctors with conflicts of interest -- such as competing in-office surgery wards -- that take business away from the hospital. Under Community Memorial's new policy, such doctors could not be elected to leadership positions on the medical staff or vote in staff elections.

Doctors maintain that they are a legally independent arm of the medical center whose authority has been undermined by administrators. The hospital argues that its medical staff is an advisory body that gains its power only from the hospital board of trustees, not from law.

Finally, after 18 months of invective and a meeting between a committee of trustees and four physician leaders early this week, the hospital blinked.

Dr. Brian Brantner, elected a physician leader last fall but now exiled from the hospital, said that physician leaders Moustapha Abu Samra, Robert Garrison, John Edison and Doug Woodburn called on the trustees, including Drescher, to end the dispute that has undermined the hospital.

Brantner, who now practices at St. John's, said numerous physicians have moved at least part of their practices out of Community Memorial over the last year because of the animosity.

Hospital officials said Community Memorial was still making money on its operations, but considerably less than it did before controversy arose.

Trustee Michael Bradbury, former Ventura County district attorney, said in an interview that the change was painful, but necessary.

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