No quick cure for what ails Brooks

Not many people would want to be in the shoes of J. Gary Rhodes. The current interim chief executive officer of Brooks Memorial Hospital has another full-time job that consists of overseeing the Kane Community Hospital in Pennsylvania, which is 105-minute one-way drive to Dunkirk if there are no weather events.

Those days, as we all are aware, have been few and far between.

Rhodes, who was called on to navigate changes at the health institution nearly one year ago, has not found it to be smooth sailing. He arrived during a heightened crisis in an attempt to rescue two sinking ships in Brooks and the Lake Shore Health Care Center, both of which were once under the umbrella of the Lake Erie Regional Health System of New York.

It became a partnership that was unsustainable. The result led to Rhodes continuing to head the Dunkirk facility, while new management and a separate board of directors is leading Irving.

What happens next at Lake Shore remains in the hands of a federal bankruptcy judge, but for now Rhodes is charged with getting Brooks through an unusually dark time.

Before the arrangement with the Lake Erie system, Dunkirk’s hospital had some of the best finances in Western New York. It regularly ran a surplus – and always had funds in reserve for a rainy day.

Recent years, however, have brought a deluge of debt. Besides running annual deficits, the hospital faces a number of unknowns from the Affordable Care Act.

“Change is here and we have to really get on it as do all hospitals across the country,” Rhodes said during an interview in March. “We have to move … and the change is really going to be disruptive.”

A first round of change was already disconcerting enough.

Rhodes’ arrival last year left little time for him to meet and greet. His position forced drastic changes brought on by failures from the previous administration.

By July, both hospitals were forced to reduce staffing levels by more than a combined 100 workers in an attempt to stem some of the out-of-control expenses that were not being matched with revenues. When deficits continued to climb, Rhodes and the Lake Erie board in mid-October decided on the most drastic measure of all: implement a closing plan for Lake Shore Hospital. It ultimately led to a separation of the two entities.

That announcement on Lake Shore sent shock waves through the community. State and local leaders as well as area residents never saw it coming.

Rhodes learned lessons from this.

Since the start of this year, he has taken several steps to have Brooks become more open with the community and its employees. The operation has hired a marketing director to communicate recent events and future happenings. Meetings with employees occurred starting in late February and continued through the middle of March with a full 60- to 90-minute PowerPoint presentation documenting the past and how the institution hopes to move forward.

Employees are even allowed access to minutes, via computer, from regularly held administrative meetings.

“I feel bad we did not do this sooner, but we were distracted,” Rhodes admits, saying additional employee meetings will likely take place on a quarterly basis.

It all adds up to an effort to keep internal stakeholders informed of the evolving business model facing many hospitals across the nation – one that will likely change the mission and role of the institution.

“One way to think about it is … it may very well not be called Brooks Memorial Hospital, it may be Brooks Memorial Health Center or Health and Wellness,” Rhodes said. “I think the definition of a hospital and what is there will change.”

His vision for Brooks is to provide outpatient care for wellness and prevention as well as treating illness and provide surgery. However, the inpatient care will continue to decrease, which has led to a huge shift in revenues.

Understandably, employees are uncomfortable.

A report from WDOE radio this week highlighted a federal mediator becoming involved with contract talks between the hospital and the nearly 200 members of the Service Employees International Union. Job security without concessions is what the union wants at a time when more money is going out than coming in.

That is just one more item for Rhodes, who walked into chaos from the start, to have on his plate.

None of that was his doing. His mission, with little notice, has been to fix what was allowed to go wrong.

Rhodes’ intent all along has been based on repairing, and saving, a community hospital. There is still plenty of work ahead.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to or call 366-3000, ext. 401.