Kaweah Health CEO goes on the record about articles

Gary Herbst
Kaweah Health

After reading the Valley Voice’s Oct. 22 article, “Adventist accused of COVID avoidance, profiteering during 2020 infection surge,” and now the Sun-Gazette’s Dec. 1 article on the same topic, I learned a very valuable lesson—always record any interview you give to the media. It’s important to have a record of what you actually say to a reporter. Fortunately, I recorded the Valley Voice interview (with permission), which became the source for the Sun-Gazette’s article when I declined their interview. I did not consider this to be a story—not when asked about it by the Valley Voice in September, and not when the Sun Gazette asked me about it, 11 months after Adventist Health Tulare started seeing COVID patients. The Valley Voice egregiously mischaracterized my statements in its article and I did not want that to happen again. Also, when the Sun-Gazette asked for an interview, we were knee deep in our second internal disaster this year taking care of the largest population of COVID patients at any hospital in the state and working to save lives. I frankly could not spare the time to meet with their reporter.

Both articles accused me of making claims that Adventist engaged in “profiteering” (a word I never spoke in my interview) by cohorting COVID-19 inpatients at their Hanford hospital during the peak of the pandemic last winter. Both articles also contained several statements that I never made; and a number of inferences, beliefs or opinions of the reporters that are ascribed to me. While we have struggled financially and operationally throughout the pandemic, I never once stated that Adventist Health was “motivated by money” as the Sun-Gazette printed in its article.

What I said, word-for-word and unedited, was:

Reporter: On another entirely different subject, I got contacted by somebody who has been prominent in the Tulare hospital situation and that individual tells me that, uh, people here and people at Sierra View are unhappy with the response from Tulare Adventist that they are not accepting enough COVID patients. COVID patients are having to be shipped out of the area; their hospital is half full. How do you feel about that; is that a correct assessment?” 

Gary: It’s no longer correct. It’s exactly how I felt.

Reporter: What happened?

Gary: During the height of the pandemic in December and January, the Adventist Health Central Valley Network made a decision to cohort all of their COVID-positive patients in their Hanford facility and to not admit any COVID patients into Tulare, Selma or Reedley. At the same time we had to completely shut down inpatient surgery, shutting down almost every procedure so that we could fully support the entire COVID population of the county . Tulare hospital advertised itself as the safe, non-COVID hospital and all of our surgeons took their cases there and did their surgery there while we were losing millions here and taking care of the COVID population. The state finally stepped in and threatened to pull their exemption from the nurse staffing ratios in Hanford because they were working under an exemption and said, “If you don’t start taking care of COVID patients and shut down your elective surgeries, we’re going to take this away from you.

Reporter: Really?

Gary: So they finally started taking patients.

Reporter: When did that happen?

Gary: Back in January, December-January.

Reporter: Interesting OK.

Gary: But then just recently within the last few weeks they went back to that MO.

Reporter: Oh I thought as much.

Gary: Yup, and our physicians told us they were taking their surgeries there so we called the state, well, we have almost weekly calls with them, and we called them out on it and so low and behold this week or I think it was last week, Adventist Health announced that they were shutting down all non-emergency inpatient surgeries and Tulare hospital published a graphic showing that they have 29 COVID patients in their hospital right now. [End transcript].

No one from Kaweah Health called CDPH to complain about Adventist. In my interview, I clarified that these hour-long weekly conference calls of the Tulare County Surge Planning Committee, which began in May 2020 and still goes on, were held with representatives of all Tulare and Kings County hospitals, the Tulare County Health & Human Services Agency, and the Bakersfield Regional Field Office of CDPH (a department of the state). Jean Chiang, district manager of the Bakersfield CDPH office, routinely asked each hospital questions about staffing and discontinuation of elective inpatient surgeries in her section of the agenda, “State Licensing Collaboration/Hospital Updates,” to help enforce the State’s temporary exemption of staffing ratios (All Facilities Letter 20-26.11). On Dec. 10, Adventist reported to Ms. Chiang and others on the call that elective surgeries had been canceled and that Tulare was now taking COVID admissions.

While the Sun-Gazette reached out to CDPH’s Office of Communications and learned they “never shared information about Adventist with Kaweah and never threatened to pull their nursing ratio exemption,” keep in mind that office is based out of Sacramento. Its team does not participate in weekly calls with local hospitals or the Bakersfield Regional Office of CDPH. It is highly unlikely they would be aware of anything said at the local or regional level. 

When dealing with the media, never take the bait. I sat down with the Valley Voice in September for a different story and at the end of the nearly two-hour interview, the reporter sprung his question about Adventist. Had I responded, “It’s no longer correct,” and left it at that, the Valley Voice and the Sun Gazette would have gone elsewhere for their next stories.

This guest editorial is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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