Editorial: The Sun-Gazette comments on CEO’s no comment

The Sun-Gazette would like to thank Gary Herbst, CEO of Kaweah Health, for taking the time to respond to our Dec. 1, 2021 article titled “Kaweah Health’s CEO claims of pandemic profiteering unfounded.” It is our editorial mission to foster in-depth discussion of issues facing Tulare County.

One of the greatest challenges in Tulare County is providing a high level of patient care and access to a population plagued by poverty, especially during a pandemic. Kaweah Health is quite possibly the hospital most impacted by COVID-19 in the state. This undoubtedly puts immense pressure on our health care system, from custodial staff attempting to sanitize the hospital all the way up to the administrators in charge of keeping the entire operation open, accessible and safe. It would be perfectly plausible to assume Herbst made off-the-cuff comments to a local newspaper in his haste to get back to the business of saving lives, and no one would fault him for that admission. The Sun-Gazette respects Herbst for the critical role he plays in this area’s grave battle over the life and death of its residents. 

Before this newspaper’s rebuttal to Herbst’s guest editorial, it must be stated this piece will not comment on any decisions made by the Valley Voice newspaper which originally printed Herbst’s allegations Adventist was not pulling its weight in terms of treating COVID-19 patients in Tulare County. The Valley Voice and The Sun-Gazette are not affiliated with each other, do not share stories and information and generally differ in a variety of ways. Each newspaper in Tulare County is its own entity, has different ownership groups and often compete for information and resources. 

In terms of The Sun-Gazette’s article, Herbst said he never made comments that Adventist’s cohorting of patients in Hanford was motivated by money and attributes this to the reporter’s own “inferences, beliefs or opinions.” Yet in the transcript provided by Herbst, he says “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.” If Herbst is not making a financial statement about Adventist then why bring up the fact his hospital was “losing millions” in an argument about a crisis of care? It is Herbst’s own words which provide the implication Adventist was continuing elective surgeries for profit by not caring for COVID patients. The author of the article, publisher Reggie Ellis, attended a meeting with a group of community members where Herbst was speaking about the issue. Ellis asked Herbst if the Adventist’s actions had risen to the level of profiteering. Herbst avoided the question and did not provide any answer on the matter.

Herbst goes on to state “No one from Kaweah Health called CDPH to complain about Adventist,” but in the last paragraph of the transcript he states that Kaweah Health “called them out on it” during the hospital’s “almost weekly calls with them.” Herbst contends the calls were with Jean Chiang, district manger of the CDPH’s office in Bakersfield, and not with CDPH headquarters in Sacramento. 

“It is highly unlikely they would be aware of anything said at the local or regional level,” Herbst writes.

He assumes The Sun-Gazette had not thought of this, which we did. In a Nov. 2 email, The Sun-Gazette reached out to Jean Chiang, since she was quoted in the transcript, with questions asking if CDPH had threatened to pull Adventist Tulare’s nursing exemption, was that information shared with Kaweah and other hospitals during weekly phone calls, what hospitals are legally required to do in terms of accepting COVID patients and if there was anything wrong with Adventist’s strategy of cohorting COVID patients at their hospital in Hanford. 

Instead of receiving a response from Chiang, The Sun-Gazette received a response from CDPH’s Office of Communications based in Sacramento. The email confirmed it had received our list of questions directed to Chiang and politely asked us to direct any and all future questions to their office instead.

“Good afternoon Mr. Ellis. We have received your inquiry and it is being processed. In the future, please email your inquiries directly to us at this email address.”

Herbst also fails to realize all of these issues could have been clarified in an interview. On Nov. 3, The Sun-Gazette reached out to Kaweah Health’s media relations director to set up an interview. There was no false pretense about what the interview would be about with the subject line of “Valley Voice article” and a list of questions Kaweah Health could respond to during an interview or via email. The list of questions asked if the article had misquoted Gary in any way, if he believed Adventist’s actions had risen to the level of profiteering, how many Kaweah Health surgeons performed elective surgeries at Adventist Tulare, how Adventist “advertised” itself as the “safe non-COVID hospital,” when and how the state conveyed to Gary it was “stepping in” regarding Adventist’s actions, what was the impact of the decisions on Kaweah Health and if Kaweah had to turn any patients away during the height of the pandemic.

On Nov. 4, 2021, Kaweah’s director of media relations responded to The Sun-Gazette’s request for an interview with the following email: “Outside of the transcript that we posted on the Valley Voice web site, Gary does not have anything further to add on this. We’re a bit tied up now with the code triage.”

Herbst added in his guest editorial: “I frankly could not spare the time to meet with their reporter.” In his response, Herbst assumes he has to be the one to answer the questions. We agree with Herbst his position overseeing the only high level trauma-designated hospital between Fresno and Bakersfield is a daunting task which requires his full concentration and commitment. That does not excuse why his organization did not respond. The CEO does not need to handle every interview request but a public hospital does need to respond to requests for information from the media if it is to be a transparent organization, something Herbst and Kaweah Health pride themselves on and have a track record of doing. 

Some of the information included in this rebuttal was not mentioned in the article due to space constraints on articles. Even the most in-depth or investigative articles still have to fit in the newspaper and as an organization we try and provide as much high-quality content to our print-only readers as we do to our digital consumers. We also don’t typically report on information we do not receive from a source but rather what information we do receive and which source provided it. 

The Sun-Gazette is by no means a flawless organization. Not unlike Kaweah Health, we are constrained by time, staffing levels and monetary resources, albeit for completely different reasons. 

On a final note, Herbst writes “Both articles also contained several statements that I never made.” The Sun-Gazette would like to point out there were no statements attributed to Herbst which he did not make, and that the statements he did make could have been clarified with statements that he never made in an interview that didn’t happen. 

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